AutoStore last week said it has deployed 50,000 robots, as the warehouse automation provider continues its global expansion. The company is a leading supplier of automated storage and retrieval systems, or ASRS, which it said are more space-efficient than typical shelving and manual retrieval.
David Clear, vice president for global accounts at Nedre Vats, Norway-based AutoStore, cited the Polish plant that manufactures the robots in a congratulatory post on LinkedIn:
AutoStore expands production of modular systems
How important is the 50,000-robot mark to AutoStore? How long has it taken to get here?
Fernández: I think it’s special, but we expect it to continue growing. It’s a testament to 25 years of innovation in this field.
If we look at our install base, it’s distributed across more than 1,350 sites at approximately 800 to 900 unique customers. We’re seeing solutions across verticals, which speaks to the flexibility of AutoStore’s offering. We invented a different way to solve the problem of storing things and optimize how we retrieve goods.
Others had tried to solve this before, but with human-centric mindset, putting robots to replace people in aisles. But if you think about cube storage — that’s not the way humans operate, and you don’t need access to all inventory all the time.
It was about how to create a solution that allows the customer to retrieve items but not to consume high-priority positions that are easy to access. Since then, the ASRSes have been deployed at many locations, and AutoStore is on a journey of improvement all the time with customer feedback.
AutoStore’s blog post mentioned its production team in Poland. How has it and your manufacturing process evolved?
Fernández: We created a model that from the beginning was scalable. By manufacturing standard modules — all 1,350 deployments are the same — thanks to network of integrators that we have, we can really scale or produce volume to handle demand.
Whether it’s a 50,000-unit grid or a 500,000-unit grid, the elements are the same.
Over the years, we’ve increased capacity in our factories. They’re making more units per year and are not running at full capacity yet.
A look inside the ASRS
How many robots are in a typical AutoStore grid?
Fernández: Our systems span having less than five robots, and next year, we will deploy one with 1,000 robots.
Over the past five years, there has been an increase in the average number of robots per site. It was 30, and it’s now approaching 40 to 50, which indicates that our solution is more broadly used for high throughput.
In addition to goods-to-person (G2P) automation and robot-to-person applications, are you seeing any robot-to-robot setups, where the ASRS feeds robotic pickers and mobile robots?
Fernández: We are seeing more and more demand or at least interest in automating beyond traditional ASRS components. It’s a natural evolution — more repetitive tasks can be automated, but they need to attain a certain level of accuracy.
Picking is a common area [for robotics innovation], but it needs to be able to fulfill entire orders. It’s certainly an area where we see potential for future automation.
Workstations could be more automated, as the technology has improved — vision, grasping techniques, and handling exceptions. But there are still cartons, groceries, polybags, and groceries. The number of items to be picked is still great. Customers are really looking at the long-term horizon for their automation journeys.
Market demand still growing, says AutoStore
Are you seeing growing interest in ASRS in any particular vertical markets?
Fernández: Demand from 3PLs [third-party logistics providers] is growing. Apparel is another growth area for automation.
There is also strength in industrials — storage of spare parts closer to production.
At trade shows over the past few years, we’ve seen more vendors offering ASRS-like systems, but with more conventional mobile robots and less dense shelving. Are you concerned about increasing competition?
Fernández: There’s still a big portion of the market to be automated. The business case for automation has improved because of the increasing cost of space and of labor. Those used to be more typical of some countries like Japan, but that’s now valid across the globe.
When you walk into trade shows, there are more solutions available to help businesses to meet their needs, but we are primarily addressing two important metrics: density and throughput. On top of that, what customers are demanding more and more are flexible and modular solutions.
They need them to expand, especially in an uncertain macroeconomic environment with high interest rates. They don’t want to commit capital for the long term.
In addition, companies are looking for proven solutions more than ever. At trade shows, it’s easy to be confused, as many vendors offer similar value propositions.
Some robotics users have been burned by bad experiences. How do you stand out, then?
Fernández: Exactly. From our perspective, AutoStore focuses on quality. We monitor all our installations.
Daily uptime is 99.7%, which is something that our customers value. When they commit capital, they want a smooth investment. When there’s an exception, their own personnel can handle it.
For example, for a major 3PL like DHL to commit to automation, it had to find someone it could trust. At the end of the day, it can’t risk a bad service experience for its customers.
Getting adoption rates up
If the majority of warehouses are not yet using robots, how can the industry increase adoption?
Fernández: I see great potential. Look at how automation is used across warehouses; 80% of the market is still manually operated.
The decision to automate is not easy. In many cases, it goes to the board level because it is a complex project at the end of the day. They may not have internal competence, or they don’t want to take a risk.
For many customers, it seems easier to allocate flexible labor, the traditional way of throwing people at a problem. But that doesn’t work with today’s access to labor. Newer generations want different types of work, safe environments, and less physical demands.
Automation can come as a way to offer a better workplace. We’ll see more and more adoption in the next 10 years, since the business case is better than it was.
How can additional robot capabilities and business models such as robotics as a service (RaaS) help?
Fernández: We’re seeing solutions get easier and faster to deploy. They require less infrastructure cost and maintenance.
With RaaS, capex and opex [capital and operational expenditures] make it easier to work with automation. In the past, only big warehouses could automate, even with the trend of micro-fulfillment centers since the pandemic.
Now, applications like Decathlon in Canada have shown that you can even deploy automation at the store level. We see where the trend is going — we should automate non-value-added tasks that humans currently perform.
AutoStore looks forward
What are some of AutoStore’s goals heading into 2024?
Fernández: We’re looking to grow two to three times faster than the market. As mentioned in previous quarterly earnings calls, we believe our platform is mature enough and that we have the right network of partners to bring technology to market and drive adoption.
We released the latest version of the Red Line robots for high-throughput shifts. It is able to work three shifts, and we’re working on bring that and our cost perspective to as many customers as we can.
The market is softer now, and customers are taking a bit more time to make decisions, but they’re still closing projects and continuing with investment. Nothing is stopping the train of warehousing automation.