Q: Up to this point, certain types of automation have been considered to be out of the reach of the mid-market customer because of the extreme cost. Are you saying that's no longer the case?
Glynn: That's correct. There's a new way of doing automation with collaborative robots, where you can add automation to a facility for hundreds of thousands of dollars instead of millions. You might have eight people in a warehouse, and the operator is trying to figure out how to double or triple the volume they’re able to pick in a day. With flexible collaborative robots, you can add automation quickly and in a very low-risk manner.
Q: What do you mean by "collaborative"? Where exactly does collaboration come into the picture?
Glynn: A lot of fulfillment robots on the market today will work alongside a human picker. The human will do the actual picking, but will be directed by a robot on what to pick. Typically the robot will show a picture of the item, or colors to show what level it’s on. You’re trying to make the task very fast and easy, so that temporary workers can come into the building and very quickly be productive.
Q: Why not go the whole way, and have robots do the picking as well?
Glynn: That could work for certain warehouses, where you've got a very predictable type of product and setup. But the reality is that for most warehouses today, there are a lot of permutations. They can be very messy, and your product mix can be quite varied. It becomes very hard to fully automate that.
Q: If you’re a mid-market company, you're probably buying fewer robots. Might that make you more susceptible to downtime if any one of them fails?
Glynn: The great thing about the new way of doing fulfillment is that, whether you have eight robots or a hundred, if one of them goes down it doesn't have a meaningful impact to your operation. If a piece of a conveyor belt fails, that could shut down the entire building. But if one single robot goes down, even if you have just eight of them, you still have seven that are operational. It might mean that the time to fulfill an order goes from 15 to 21 minutes. But you're still able to have your employees working.
Q: What’s required of the humans in terms of training and figuring out how to work with these robots?
Glynn: Companies in this space have invested a lot to make the training really easy. One of our customers gave their new associates 15 minutes of training on using our collaborative robot. They show pictures, colors and numbers to direct a worker on exactly what to pick. Workers don't need to understand IDs at the base of the shelving, or aisle numbers. They're led around by the robot and brought to the exact place in the warehouse where an item needs to be picked.
Q: One of the challenges of all warehouses is how to deal with surges and peaks in demand, whether seasonal or otherwise. How is this technology helping warehouses to do that?
Glynn: Warehouses can purchase the number of robots they need for min or average demands, then rent additional units to meet peak demands. When the peak is over, a truck can back up and take those robots away.
Q: What about the software side of things? What do you need in terms of onsite I.T. expertise, to make sure your software systems are talking to the robots and are integrating with them in a smooth way?
Glynn: There are different ways to approach that. The way we do it is we don't want to touch inventory, so we just get the work that needs to be completed from the WMS [warehouse management system], and decide the most optimal way to complete that work. Then we send back to the WMS what work was completed.
Q: Mid-market companies are very sensitive about budgets. They're going to want to spend on technology, but also want a pretty quick return on that investment. How fast are they demanding an ROI these days?
Glynn: In the mid-market, they're looking for ROIs of 12 to 18 months.
Q: It used to be maybe several years. They don't wait around that long anymore, right?
Glynn: Right. Companies today are looking to buy automation the same way as they acquire other services for the business. With collaborative robots, they can order, deploy and use capacity instantaneously, then send it back when their peak season ends.
Q: It seems to be conventional wisdom these days that this technology is not going to mean the end of humans in the warehouse anytime soon. However, do you see a progressive increase in the number of robots versus that of people in warehouses in years to come, as a result of the efficiencies of these machines?
Glynn: We definitely see that there are going to be more and more robots in warehouses, both for automation and collaboration. For certain tasks that are non-value added, such as deadheaded walking, we're going to see a lot of purchases, so you can put your people into jobs where they're really needed – in the aisles picking.
Timely, incisive articles delivered directly to your inbox.