Might sound as a snapshot from a sci-fi book. However, this is the reality for some visionaire companies like Amazon, Apple, Zappos, Gap and Ikea for quite some time now.
While most wholesale, retail and ecommerce companies struggle to move from pen-and-paper or spreadsheet solutions to cloud-based inventory management software that integrates with other business processes like accounting, the market leaders took years ago big technological leaps.
Zappos is a fashion online retailer famous for its company culture and amazing service. Less popular is the fact that one of the reasons they were so efficient in running their operations and having flawless fulfillment was because they were using robots to do the warehouse jobs since back in 2008.
And it’s not only Zappos that have a little corner of the future in their warehouse. Companies like The Gap, Staples, Saks 5th Avenue, Office Depot, Crate and Barrel, Gilt Groupe, and Walgreens are also among the visionaries using an army of robots to facilitate their operations.
The “little helpers” receive their orders wirelessly, while using cameras to read navigational QR code stickers on the warehouse floor, slide under and move racks of inventory along a floor grid to automatically move merchandise to warehouse workers. Moreover, they are fully mobile and can be easily used for upscaling the warehouse space.
After an order comes in to the website, a robot automatically wheels into a grid of shelves, locates the right shelf, lifts it onto its back, and carries it to a picking station, where human workers take what is needed, pack it and ship it.
The robots were produced by Kiva Systems Inc., a company established in 2003 that started developing the fully functional solution in 2004.
The average installation of the robots was about 5 million USD back in 2009 and it took Zappos four months to complete the installation. Quite a big upfront investment, but they were paying off through the productivity improvement they brought. They could work non-stop, don’t work about work conditions, lift heavy weights, were connected to the inventory software and knew where to go pick up the items and where to deliver them inside the fulfillment center.
“I don’t need to tell my competitors how much more productive it makes us,” says Randy Lewis, senior vice-president for supply chain and logistics at the Deerfield (Ill.) drugstore chain that uses Kiva Systems. “It’s been a good investment.”
So the benefits of using robots in the warehouse range from increasing productivity to reducing utility costs and personnel costs.
Amazon jumped on the technology wagon by first acquiring Zappos and its innovative fulfillment centers in 2009, and then surprise-surprise acquired Kiva Systems in May 2012 for 775 million USD.
Years before robots were too awkward and expensive. But as they got cheaper, smarter and prove to help the workers get their job done easier, they got to be well received by both companies and employees.
Last year, Apple welcomed robots to its team and outraged by announcing that the new Mac Pro is produced in the US, not in China. The latest Mac Pro was assembled by using mostly robots. Different robotics companies provided the “little helpers” to the assembly line, like Jot Automation for placing components on the circuit boards.
And the little robots are also ready to go out there in the world and meet you. They might bring you the next Amazon order. In December 2013, Amazon tested delivery drones, which they plan to implement by 2015 as the Prime Air service for fast delivery. The drones would ship orders under five pounds (2.3 kg) to customers within a 10 mile (16 km) radius of Amazon’s fulfillment centers in 30 minutes.
And Ikea, probably the most beloved furniture producer and shop, is not late to the tech party neither. They’ve been playing around with augmented reality product catalogs for a few years now. Last year they re-launched the improved version of their augmented reality mobile app to help people imagine how the new furniture would look in their house.
The future is already here, it’s just not evenly distributed yet!
Author: Adelina Peltea — VP of Marketing at TradeGecko