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The Bot Revolution: 3PLs Go High-Tech to Streamline Warehouse Operations

6/20/2019
The invasion of robots, co-bots, or bots – call them what you will – is coming to a warehouse near you.

The Bot Revolution

This article was featured by Inbound Logistics.

But, before a sci-fi thriller plays out in your head, think of this as a welcome invasion. In fact, from the 3PL executives charged with making their company’s operations more efficient and cost-effective to the associates on the floor who pick the orders, all are singing the praises of the ‘bot revolution.’

Until recently, the implementation of robots in 3PLs’ warehouse operations was seen as a future trend that was just around the corner but still too expensive. Bots were the ‘someday’ answer, just not today. The capital costs of automation remained high, and even though there were significant labor shortages, few 3PLs (and their clients) were taking a serious look at robotic automation amid concerns about the formidable capital investment required, as well as the return on investment.

However, recently, the industry seems to be shifting toward a robot revolution of sorts. First, 3PLs such as DHL, GEODIS, DB Schenker, XPO, and others started experimenting with bots. And it wasn’t long before companies such as Barrett Distribution Centers, Kerry Logistics, Verst, and Radial followed suit.

This revolution shouldn’t come as a surprise. When teamed with human workers in a ‘co-bot’ arrangement, where the robot assists the worker, the bot may guide the warehouse associate around the facility with instructions on what to pick and where. Additionally, the bot may come to the warehouse associate’s ‘zone,’ directing them on the items and quantities to pick. The result is real productivity gains. Rather than replacing warehouse associates, bots are making the employees more productive and more accurate in their job functions.

These bots – with nicknames like Chuck – are winning users over. Executives and financial analysts have been wowed by the 2x productivity gains and ability to rapidly deploy them without large capital outlays. The operations folks like the limited training requirements and the fact that some bots are even multi-lingual. And the employees like the fact their new ‘friend’ actually makes their jobs more fun, more productive, and a bit more high-tech.

Today, there are more than a dozen companies working to make their mark in this burgeoning industry. The names include: Fetch Robotics, Locus Robotics, GreyOrange, IAM Robotics, and 6 River Systems, among others. And we can’t forget about big names like Amazon, who recently made another robotics purchase with the acquisition of Denver-based CANVAS Technology.

One of the best parts of this new technology solution is the ease of implementation. Integrating software, set up in the warehouse, and training of associates all seem to be a lot less complex and time-consuming than initially imagined. Even the financial aspects have proven to be a plus for this type of automation. Several companies are renting or leasing the units in addition to selling them outright, making ‘spot deployment’ possible during surges in demand when the reported 2x productivity improvements really make a huge difference.

Similar to that sci-fi thriller, what’s next is anybody’s guess. 3PLs, along with the rest of the industrial industry, are watching in suspense as robots continue to make the warehouse of the future a reality.

 

Rich Hamilton serves as Managing Director and Lead for Cushman & Wakefield’s 3PL Specialty Advisory Group. He brings a diverse professional background including experience in Manufacturing & Supply Chain, Third Party Logistics and Industrial Real Estate.

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