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Supply Chain News: Coronavirus Crisis may Accelerate Adoption of Robots in Distribution


Gap Stores Accelerates DC Robot Orders with Fewer Workers Due to Social Distancing

May 27, 2020
 SCDigest Editorial Staff

Many pundit have observed that the coronavirus crisis is in many areas simply accelerating trends that were already in motion.

Supply Chain Digest Says...


Reducing costs may soon return to be the main driver of DC robot adoption if social distancing requirements fade due to a vaccine or cure, or significantly reduced infection levels.

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That seems to be the case with the use of robots in disribuion, where what was a growing market already (see Supply Predictions for 2020 Part 1) may be getting a further boost from companies looking to reduce issues with human workers in the virus era.

Case in point: Reuters reported last week that US apparel retailer Gap is speeding up its rollout of robots for packing on-line orders so it can limit human contact during the coronavirus pandemic.

Gap is using a kind of piece-picking robot from a company called Kindred AI, and had ordered more than 100 robots for delivery this fall. As the virus crisis exploded, GAP saw a surge in orders that needed to be picked and shipped from its distribution centers – but a shortage of workers in its DCs to fulfill the rising order load due to social distancing rules Gap had put in place was hampering throughput.

So Gap asked Kindred if it could deliver the additional robots earlier. The start-up was ultimately able to deploy 10 of its robots to Gap's DC near Nashville and 20 ro a DC near Columbus, with plans to finish the rollout to four of Gap's five US facilities by July, which is months ahead of schedule.

Each Kindred robot handles work typically performed by four DC associates, picking items delivered from a conveyor system and chutes into cartons from a bowl-like holding area for shipping to customers

There are all kinds of robots that could be deployed in DCs, including piece and case picking machines, goods-to-person technologies, automated fork trucks and more.

The Reuters article notes, for example, that Walmart has been piloting the piece-picking system from a company called RightHand Robotics at several of its DCs.

Reuters quotes Vince Martinelli, head of product marketing at RightHand Robotic, as saying that "If you're going to have limited people in the building, the last thing you want them to do is a simple task that can be automated."

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Reuters also reported that Amazon is investing in additional automation for sorting items after DC workers have unpacked the, from a carton, such that workers do not need to walk by each other frequently as they did without the machine assist.

Of course, reducing costs may soon return to be the main driver of DC robot adoption if social distancing requirements fade due to a vaccine or cure, or we see significantly reduced infection levels.

In fact, economic downturns have historically been catalysts for automation. A recent report from think tank Brookings Institution said spurts of automation often follow economic shocks – and US retailers are especially in tough financial times, with those in apparel and other "non-essential" merchandise forced to close stores for more than two months.

The good news: even with the additional robots, GAP is still recruiting new DC workers.

Do you think we will see fast adoption of robots in the DC? Let us know your thoughts at the Feedback section below.




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