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Year in Review 2019: 6 River Systems 

 February 26, 2020

By  Mike Oitzman

We sat down with 6 River Systems, VP of Marketing, Fergal Glynn to discuss the last 12 months and the year ahead. 6 River Systems had a standout year which included being acquired by Shopify. In this interview, we learn more details about the past year from Glynn.

Mobile Robot Guide

What was the most significant news this last year?

Fergal Glynn, 6 River Systems

First of all, we’ve doubled the number of people in the company over the last year to 160 employees. We also became a global company in 2019 with live sites now in Canada, Netherlands and the UK [along with the US].

Product wise, at the end of 2018 we only had Chuck, a single product that could help with picking. Now at the end of 2019 we’ve matured and we actually have six products now. We’ve become a multi product company with several new product offerings. We’ve added a lot of other capabilities to Chuck including replenishment workflow

6-Rivers Chuck robot

6 Rivers Chuck Autonomous Mobile Robot (Image courtesy of 6 River Systems)

We’ve also built new pieces of hardware such as the mobile sort wall, and extended our offerings to become an end to end solution. As part of that process we’ve partnered with other technology providers to create a packout station and an integration with an auto-bagger.

Then the other big piece of news is that Shopify completed the acquisition of 6 river systems in 2019. We are now a part of Shopify, but we’ll continue to sell and make our solution available to anyone who wants us.

MRG

On the Shopify acquisition and future plans, are they moving into micro-fulfillment centers?

Glynn

Shopify announced the Shopify Fulfillment Network earlier in 2019. With this acquisition [6 River Systems], this is adding our cloud based software, our robots and our expertise to accelerate the growth of the Shopify Fulfillment Network.
This acquisition helps Shopify to deliver fulfillment to the thousands of merchants who are using their eCommerce software. Shopify will add nodes on their [fulfillment] network. A node could be a 3PL. This is a partnership between the nodes on the network, Shopify technology and their partners. If a nodes chooses to, they can deploy 6 River Systems into their warehouse. This [whole idea] is very synergistic and makes automation very accessible.

MRG

What do you think is driving this evolution and maturation of the Shopify network?

Glynn

There have been advances in technology.This is being driven by the scarity of labor, the push for faster product delivery and better service levels from brands and merchants. Customers are now demanding this advancement.

On the technology side, because of what’s happening with the macro trends, we’re benefiting now from a trend that collaborative robots have “left the pilot purgatory phase”. Autonomous Mobile Robots are no longer an experimental technology. Our customers are deploying more and more robots. We now have customers who are, on their first purchase order, placing orders for multiple sites. There’s enough happy customers out there now, and references so that customers are confident that the technology is viable, and they are jump right to scale.

MRG

Do you see this as a sign that mobile robots have “crossed the chasm” and entered the “Main Street” region of the market?

Glynn

In the US, for example, the reality is that I believe that there are 5000+ warehouses just doing “eaches picking” and these are candidates for collaborative robots. Currently, by my estimation, there’s only robotic automation deployed in 400 warehouses, so there’s a lot of opportunity for growth here. Most warehouses are currently manual driven. However, with the challenges with getting labor, collaborative robots are being brought in to supplement what people can do. We’re finding that our customers are ordering extra robots to help during surges, especially during peak periods.

MRG

Are you offering your solution as a “Robots as a Service” for this use case?

Glynn

We offer both purchase models. Our customers can purchase the robots out right or they can rent. We have found that it’s a split in terms of the capital purchase versus rentals. We do have a bunch of customers who purchased during this peak season, some of whom doubled the size of their fleet in order to handle the volume that they expected through this last Black Friday and cyber Monday weeks.

MRG

So number one they have enough confidence that the system is solving they needs, and they believe that they can throw additional robots into the workflow to handle the additional volume?

Glynn

It helps with throughput and higher pick rates. But it also helps seasonal workers to get up to speed quicker, because a new warehouse worker can be trained with a robot and be up to speed in 15 minutes. A new hire can come into the building at 7 AM and be on the floor at 7:15 picking products. These kind of training times are unheard of with a manual cart or with traditional automation.

MRG

Does your system assign one robot to one human associate?

Glynn

This depends on the operation, but a rule of thumb is about 1.5 robots to one picker. There are factors such as the size of building, how you pick, etc. The beauty of our software is that it will run algorithms to decide what’s the most optimal picking methodology for the work that needs to be done on any given day. During different days of the week, one of our clients picks with a different methodology based on the available workforce. So for example, they’ll do batch picking when they are low on people and cluster picking when there are more people in the building.

MRG

So your fleet management software sits between the warehouse management system (WMS) and the robots to orchestrate the entire operation?

Glynn

Yes. Being able to change processes day to day and how you pick is a huge benefit. With a batch picking mode, if you have fewer people, you can get more shipments out of the building by going to a location once and picking everything that needs to be picked.
For example, a Chuck and an associate can grab a large volume of one product, and dump it into a tote on the Chuck. The Chuck can then go on its own to another part of the building where that product tote is singulated and sorted into a sort wall along with other customer items for an order. Meanwhile, the associate in the warehouse meets another Chuck at the end of the aisle to grab the next bulk order. This means an item is touched twice including the consolidation, but you can get more throughput out of your building with fewer people.

On the days when there are more people, cluster picking is the best thing to do as it reduces the number of touches and gets the units per hour ratio higher. It’s all dependent on staffing levels for any given day.

MRG

Are you seeing a bigger trends towards deployment in Third Party Logistics (3PL) operations?

Glynn

Yes. Third Party Logistics is currently the biggest market for 6 River Systems solutions, especially in mid-sized 3PLs. These smaller operations can get access to automation for hundreds of thousands of dollars of investment versus millions of dollars. This is democratizing fulfillment. It’s making it easier for anyone to get into fulfillment, get access to the right technology and remain competitive. 3PLs have huge challenges with labor retention, and this is driving the ROI for automation. The robots are making the job of the employees in the building easier, as they don’t have to walk as far during each shift.

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About the author 

Mike Oitzman

Mike Oitzman brings 25 years of product management and product marketing experience to the role of publisher and editor for Mobile Robot Guide. Mike is a respected expert in the mobile robot market and is a frequent panel leader and speaker at events and tradeshows.

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