Bonnie Cliff (BC): How has the last year affected the demand for warehouse automation?
Denis Niezgoda (DN): Since the onset of the pandemic last year and the succession of UK lockdowns, companies that had previously shifted toward a warehouse automation strategy over the medium term opted to bring forward their plans. It is clear the pandemic caused a dramatic shift in the online shopping trends of the UK and elsewhere. This changed not only the way consumers shopped, but also had a significant impact on fulfilment operations, with the ecommerce sector challenged to meet huge volume spikes and weighty customer expectations. With social distancing measures being adopted across the warehouse floor, operators have found themselves having to cope with unprecedented peaks in demand and fewer staff to fulfil the orders. The only viable way to cost-effectively mitigate this problem is through effective automation which is why we are seeing an increase in the number of companies looking into robotics and automation solutions for their fulfilment operations.
BC: How does Locus Robotics support resilience in the supply chain?
DN: The early days of the pandemic saw the resilience of supply chains tested to the max. In truth, many were found wanting and completely unprepared for the surge in demand brought on by lockdown. Scaling up automation to improve picking productivity and reduce cycle times quickly became the requirement for fulfilment operations globally, not just in the UK. Under such circumstances, the easy deployment of automation such as that offered by Locus Robotics quickly became attractive to operators struggling to fulfil additional orders with a depleted workforce. The effectiveness of the real-time data offered by Locus also helps managers gain a vivid picture of their operational performance, helping them make more informed decisions, especially on resource deployment. So, if operators are not implementing robotic automation now, then they risk falling further behind their competition.
BC: Besides picking, what are the key areas for development in warehouse automation?
DN: Fixed infrastructure automation, such as conveyors, have been in use in warehouses for some time and have proven to improve efficiency. Likewise, automated packaging solutions. However, such methods are expensive and offer a longer return on investment. As such, these solutions are only effective for larger companies that can absorb such capital costs over the long-term. More scalable solutions, such as those offered by Locus Robotics, offer a more cost-effective automation option for many companies looking to improve their operational efficiency and can be deployed in existing warehouse environments without the need for infrastructure changes. Where effective, companies may also look to automate processes rather than install physical automation.
BC: Can robotics provide a cost-effective solution to managing a rapidly changing warehouse?
DN: The only cost-effective way to manage surges in demand and mitigate workforce depletion – whether due to COVID-19 or not - is through automation. Locus Robotics’ Robots-as-a-Service (RaaS) model allows warehouses to add autonomous mobile robot (AMR) automation to their existing operation at reasonable cost while delivering a return on investment that is measured in weeks, rather than years. RaaS lowers the upfront costs of automation by reallocating a single capital expense into a recurring operational expense. The RaaS model gives operators the flexibility they need to meet changing demands, unlike capital expense models. So, when volumes grow – either due to seasonality or sudden demand spikes - operators can simply add more robots to absorb the increased order volume and then simply send them back when volume levels return to normal.