Logistics companies are increasingly seeking new mobile robot automation solutions. Part of the reason for this is that the mobile robot market has matured. That is to say, the hardware side has matured. It’s now easy to obtain cheap, reliable, and highly capable mobile robots. However, there are still huge opportunities to improve mobile robot automation setups through better software.
Most current mobile robot automation solutions do a dedicated set of tasks in the warehouse and do it really well. But what if you could take different mobile robots from different vendors, and seamlessly knit them together into something approaching a full workflow automation solution?
This kind of solution works by offering a unified control system and ‘universal translator’. A single robot control system (RCS) integrates directly with mobile robots from different vendors and allows them to communicate directly, enabling detailed coordination between different robots, leading to optimized end-to-end workflow automation.
Such intelligent software solutions exist on the market today, and it’s a market that is set to grow enormously. One problem is a lack of knowledge on the part of logistics managers about what this tech can do for them. In this article, I want to give two real-world case studies that speak for themselves.
Increasing storage capacity by 200% at Yunda Express Korea
Established in 2014 in Seoul, Yunda Express Korea is a leading logistics provider. They provide internal logistics services for merchants and e-commerce customers, and they specialize in improving cross-border deliveries by integrating warehousing, logistics, customs clearance, and express delivery.
Like most companies, Yunda Express Korea was hit by COVID-19. As well as dealing with rising labor costs, disrupted supply chains, and rapidly growing labor costs, they also had to deal with national borders – which were subject to sudden and arbitrary closures. Additionally, the company was keen to take action to position itself for the long term, so as to be ready for fast-changing e-commerce business trends, such as people switching to shopping via social media, and the need to embrace ultra-rapid parcel delivery.
Because of all this, the company decided to take the opportunity to revamp its own internal logistics processes, building an even more flexible and efficient warehouse logistics operation than it already had, and so ensuring that any disruptions to customers as a result of COVID-19 were minimized.
Yunda Express Korea decided to deploy a smart logistics solution that would employ large-scale robot fleet scheduling technology to integrate three different types of mobile robots, from three different mobile robot vendors, into a single automation solution.
This solution allowed for high-bay storage and low-level picking. It also allowed for the handling of different types of inventories – small, medium, and large – in a unified system. This was enabled by using three different models of robots: small items can be stored in totes and handled by tote robots, and medium/large items can be stored on moveable shelves and handled by Kiva-like robots.
This type of integrated automation for different types of inventories greatly increases overall efficiency and also simplifies the overall process because it removes the need to separate them into different storage areas and to equip them with different automation solutions. The solution allows warehouse employees to sort and pick products with the greatest possible ease, and radically improves the day-to-day work experience of employees by cutting out the need for long-distance walking entirely.
The benefits could not be clearer. Overall storage capacity at sites where the solution was deployed increased by 200%. Labor needs in basic warehouse tasks were reduced by 40% (allowing scarce and expensive employees to be redeployed to other higher-value tasks), and 100% ROI will be achieved within 1.5 years.
The other benefit is harder to quantify but equally real: flexibility. The new warehouse management system is highly flexible, and it means that Yunda Express Korea has a huge amount of leeway to adjust its mobile robots and picking stations to meet almost any challenge that the market might throw at them in the future.
Intelligent logistics for eBeauty
eBeauty is a leading e-commerce provider in China that specializes in the cosmetics and beauty sectors.
Rapid e-commerce and online business growth within the cosmetics industry during COVID, had caused big opportunities for sales, but also created challenges. These included a sudden need for massive SKUs, radical order fluctuations caused by successful marketing promotions, and rapidly rising labor costs. To solve these challenges, and ensure they could continue to deliver the very best service to their customers, eBeauty implemented a smart logistics solution that was unique in their sector.
The solution integrated two different types of mobile robot, from two different vendors. One type handles the transportation of totes from high shelves to low shelves. The other handles the transportation of these same totes from the low shelves to picking stations. The result was a hierarchical storage architecture, where products eBeauty knows will be fast selling can be cached on low-level shelves straight away. Whereas slower-selling products can be stored on higher shelves and only moved down to low-level shelves as they are needed. This inventory allocation optimization solution is completely automated by the software system that drives it, and it achieves both high storage density and high outbound/inbound operational efficiency.
The solution has now been in place for more than one year. It has radically increased picking accuracy to more than 99.99%, as well as significantly improving picking efficiency which has now exceeded 1000 pcs per hour per picking station. It has also delivered a doubling in storage capacity, and reduced the need for labor by allowing scarce and expensive workers to be redeployed to higher-value tasks elsewhere in the company.
Finally, it has enabled eBeauty to be much better prepared to handle the peak season because it allows for the proactive optimization of inventory distribution. This project has already gone smoothly through several peak seasons and successful marketing promotions, and has demonstrated that it can quickly adapt to seamlessly manage steep increases or decreases in demand.
An important missing piece to the mobile robot puzzle
What these case studies show is that the ability to integrate mobile robots from different providers is the next step for logistics companies. That’s because no single mobile robot vendor can do it all. Some make just one type of robot, others make a variety, but no one vendor can realistically offer a best-in-class mobile robot suitable for any warehouse application. Integrating mobile robots from different vendors can deliver massive benefits, such as the 200% increase in storage capacity for Yunda Express Korea mentioned above. One very effective solution that has emerged in the market to allow such integration is centralized and open software systems that allow the orchestration of heterogeneous fleets of robots from any vendor.
About the author
Lijun Zhu is the CEO of smart logistics technology company CoEvolution – a company that he co-founded in 2019. He has deep experience in the logistics and e-commerce industries gained from working in the U.S. at Amazon, and in China at Alibaba.