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Last-mile delivery – the robotics race for market success

Article by James Gore
orderwise and hikrobot robots in action

The multi-tasking robots speeding up micro-fulfilment centres

As social distancing has taken hold of the nation, the ecommerce industry has seen a huge take-up of services. People are online shopping for their groceries, retail and household goods in volumes that we have simply never seen before.

Chart

(Source Office of National Statistics

The UK is forecast to become the second-largest online grocery market worldwide after China by 2020

(Source Statista)

Managing this record-breaking influx, alongside continued restrictions of movement during COVID-19, has caused the entire systems of supply and delivery to clog, creating delays along logistical chains. To play increasingly competitive roles in the consumer industry, companies were beginning to offer same-day and next-day delivery services, and even slots determinable to the hour. Although these services have now slowed, it remains that companies who can make their online services and delivery processes quicker and easier than their competitors will come out on top.

How can businesses speed it up?

It seems almost impossible for companies to manage faster and more efficient services solely from vast distribution warehouses, which are often situated in isolated locations. Also, for grocery providers especially, having pickers complete online orders alongside brick-and-mortar shoppers would only cause even more congestion in-store.

Micro-fulfilment centres are being heralded as the answer. Simplifying shipping all over the country for retailers, when successful, the centres provide the key to boosting fulfilment capacities and besting competitor margins for the end-consumer experience, in terms of service, cost and time. With current levels of distribution hitting all-time high strains, now has never been a better time to get into warehousing on the micro-fulfilment level.

Micro-fulfilment centres – what are they?

Micro-fulfilment centres are small-scale warehouses located closer to consumer locations. They are fed by the shipping of larger main warehouses and focus on ‘the last mile’ of delivery to consumers’ front doors.

Streamlining the shipping process, the centres simplify the logistical tasks of the main warehouses and speed up the time from placing an order to successful delivery. Micro-centres can also make use of existing structures in urban areas, and even in spaces at the back of current urban area shops.

However, with rent prices higher per square foot in urban areas, retailers need to ensure they manage extreme utilisation of the space and achieve heightened productivity to counteract the increased spend. Balancing the cost, time, and space indeed marks the beginnings of the race for optimisation and automation in our warehouses and delivery services.

The robotics revolutionising the market

The answer to the triple threat problem lies in automated systems, which can rapidly pick orders from storage that fits into smaller spaces located at the back of shops or in miniature warehouses. Picture rows of tightly packed totes; when an order comes in, robots will be instructed to leave their charging stations and collect the items in the most efficient method and deliver them to a human employee, or ‘picker’ to pack the products for final delivery.

We have already begun to see robotics entering the micro-fulfilment centre world, with the likes of leading online supermarket Ocado. The Ocado Zoom service not only promises to get your groceries “delivered in a jiffy” with same-day delivery but also, to always keep the fee below £3. The online grocer manages this feat through the speed and efficiency of robotics.

The warehouse systems are able to calculate levels of inventory in real-time, meaning online shoppers know immediately when a product is out of stock. The Goods-to-Person robotics system creates a streamlined operation to fulfil orders quickly, run 24/7 and allow a business room for growth, without the need to overwork or increase staff.

Our recommendation – Enter the CTU Robot

(otherwise known as Hikrobot’s container transporting robot)

This multitasking robot can carry up to five totes at once, and deliver them all to separate places across a micro-fulfilment centre. Able to reach the heavy containers stacked on taller shelves over two metres high, and filling in where the smaller picking robots can’t, the CTU is designed to shift multiple totes smoothly and quickly, without the need for skilled operators. Working with pre-existing infrastructure, shelves and containers, it carries totes one on top of another from A to B. The automated unit is also compact and can operate in smaller working spaces, but like any Hikrobot, also works well in a team.

Even when transporting up to 50kg at any one time, the CTU can still really move; shifting forward, backward and performing 360-degree rotation to position the totes accurately to 3mm. Speeding ahead at up to 1.5m/s, it’s clear to see how these robots can achieve an impressive picking rate.

Completely driverless and wireless, central Robotic Control Software (RCS) will feed any number of robot units instructions in the most efficient routes and ways possible, and the robots, using a barcode grid system and their visual and inertial navigation, go to retrieve the lists of products required. They report automatically to a dedicated point for auto-charging or repair and have several safety features including laser obstacle avoidance and an audio alarm.

It’s safe to say the CTU robot is a smart bit of robotic tech when it comes to making the most of a micro-fulfilment centre. They do the big lifting and shifting safely, speedily and accurately, so your employees don’t have to.

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