Automation in logistics is not new, having first emerged some 30 years ago, but back then it wasn’t as widely utilised as one might imagine, probably because of the large investment required.
But even if you could afford it back then, nowadays with the new robotics and automation technologies available, what can be done with a logistics centre is way beyond what was possible in the past.
Estimates vary on how much more efficient an intelligent warehouse can be, but it’s generally accepted that the savings in costs and time which can be achieved by using robots and automated systems are significant.
According to Locus Robotics, involving robotics and automation can improve productivity by around five to eight times over traditional cart methods. The company was started by some “big brains” after they realised that the robots they previously used, made by Kiva, had been taken off the market by Amazon, the supermassive global online retailer.
“If you’ve been standing anywhere near a warehouse the last few years, you know the story,” says Locus on its website. “Kiva builds something great. We all love it and use it. Then Amazon buys it.
“We started looking for an alternative. The more we looked, the more obvious it became: if we wanted the right solution we’d have to build it ourselves.
“So we got to work.”
Since then, the “big brains” of Bruce Welty, CEO, Mike Johnson, president, Sean Johnson, CTO, and Al Dekin, SVP sales and marketing, have developed what they say is “the world’s first robotic fulfilment solution built by warehouse people for warehouse people”.
In an exclusive interview with Robotics and Automation News, Dekin says it has taken Locus three years to perfect the system. “We started working on the solution in late 2012,” he says.
“We publicly launched the solution and company in the fourth quarter of 2015. Our first challenge was to evaluate the state of robotic technology. As domain experts, the business application was the easy part. We invested significant time and resources in solving complex multi-robot navigation issues.”
Complex, sophisticated and advanced the Locus solution may be, but that doesn’t mean it’s expensive. Dekin claims the Locus Robotics system costs significantly less than other systems. Perhaps it’s their backgrounds: as they suggest on their website, the key personnel at the company come from a world of warehouses, they have experience in the field, which may also explain the organic approach they have taken to the development of their system.
“Locus is unique in that it works with and complements existing warehouse infrastructure,” says Dekin. “This dramatically reduces the overall investment required to deploy our solution. Return on investment, or payback, for our solution is typically one to two years, a significant improvement over established industry solutions.”
By “established solutions”, Dekin may have meant Kiva Systems if the interview was done some time in the past, but that company is no longer supplying its robots and automation systems to anyone other than Amazon, after the retailer bought the company in 2012 for $775 million.
Not many people would have been surprised by Amazon’s decision to buy Kiva, since Amazon already operated gigantic warehouses and fulfilment centres. Curious maybe, but understandable. But what may be more of a revelation is what Amazon has done with Kiva Systems since its takeover.
Just in the last few days, the Kiva Systems website has disappeared, only to be replaced by Amazon Robotics. And the retailer is not only using the Kiva platform to launch fulfilment centres all over the world, it has agreed ground-breaking deals with various territories, including in Europe and the Far East, perhaps in preparation for an even more audacious expansion of its logistics operations, according to Dan Gilmore, editor of Supply Chain Digest.
And it’s not just the physical moving of goods that Amazon is looking to simplify using technology. “A key part of the plan, it seems clear, is to use technology to automate the often cumbersome global logistics process,” writes Gilmore. Included in that is the automation of logistics related paperwork, which can be quite involving when goods are being shipped from one country to another.
But for Locus Robotics, the current preoccupation is on the physical – the robotics and automation technology itself. The company’s partners include Harvard Biorobotics Lab, Olin Engineering, Function and Zeta – all of which have highly advanced technology appropriate for the Locus solution.
Having said that, Locus says its solution is “not about robots or software; it’s about how those two things work together to increase the warehouse’s capacity to get orders out the door. In our world, that’s all that matters: Units Per Hour (UPH), Cost Per Unit (CPU), Service Level Agreements (SLA), and every other metric that keeps you up at night”.
Dekin adds: “Our initial target market is currently fulfilment operations – ecommerce, wholesale and store replenishment – for premium brands and specialty retailers.”
Many premium retailers would be sending goods out around the world, often by sea to some port in a far-off place. But anywhere there’s a warehouse, a Locus Robotics solution could be applied, ports being an obvious place. “We follow ports in as much as they influence the location of warehouses.”
After Amazon’s deals with various countries, it’s likely we will see many more warehouses and fulfilment centres at ports which have the Kiva system, now called the Amazon Robotics solution, probably. But while Amazon has the advantage of economies of scale, logistics companies with “traditional” systems do have an opportunity now to compete while the playing field is relatively new and even.
Dekin says: “Kiva was the first commercial robotics success in logistics and fulfilment. The technology has evolved significantly since Kiva was conceived and developed. These advancements allow us to build a solution that would have been virtually impossible to produce and justify a decade ago.”
He adds that Locus is also interested in overseas markets, although the US is its initial target. “We are currently focused on the US domestic market. As we continue to grow we’ll evaluate opportunities in both new geographies adjacent markets.”
Dekin emphasises what Locus Robotics sees as one of its main advantages – simplicity of installation. However, he adds that learning to maximise the value of the system can be a transformative process for some companies, but one that they can help with.
“While a solution like ours is very easy to deploy – measured in days, not months – there is still a need for resources who understand warehouse workflow, metrics and integration. We expect to build relationships with major integrators who can assist in these areas.”
And without getting into the details of the technology itself, Dekin says Locus has a number of intellectual property rights in advanced robotics and automation systems. “We have significant IP in critical areas such as robot functional design, single and multi-robot navigation, system control and administration, system integration, business logic and workflow control. All of these elements were developed in-house.”
Logistics is a sector that is becoming gradually more competitive. Recently, the British online-only grocer Ocado teamed up with Cambridge Consultants to create a warehouse automation system they claim is like no other.
They may well each be different from the other, but the market they’re aiming for – logistics – is the same. And the companies mentioned here are not the only ones to develop robotics and automation technologies specifically for the logistics industry. It will be interesting to see how things progress. Clearly the early developers like Locus can gain an advantage.
For Dekin, who has spent the last six years “walking warehouses and building fulfilment partnerships”, the opportunity to improve the way things work in logistics is what gets him out of bed every morning.