Robotics lifts warehouse efficiency to new levels

Hugh Stevens, chairman of warehouse management technology leader Synergy, reveals how robotics is transforming fulfilment operations by fuelling unprecedented efficiencies

What impact has the coronavirus pandemic had on ecommerce retailers and their fulfilment operations?

COVID-19 and stay-at-home directives have significantly accelerated the move to ecommerce. I would say, previously, the ratio was still around 80-20 in favour of bricks and mortar. Since the start of the pandemic, it has flipped the other way in favour of ecommerce. This move is unlikely to be reversed and it has opened up a whole new range of supply chain challenges. In a world of instant gratification and Amazon-scale fulfilment, consumers expect near-immediate delivery when purchasing items online.

How has the use of robotics technology in warehouse environments evolved in recent years?

Automation has been available for many years, but it has been relatively expensive and time consuming to implement. The technology has improved and robotics is now moving from an early-adopter phase into the mainstream Meanwhile, other drivers, like the shift to ecommerce and labour shortages, are forcing warehouse operators to look to alternatives to improve productivity. The volatility of the ecommerce marketplace makes planning very difficult. Volumes can grow exponentially and new opportunities can present themselves almost overnight. The situation requires a far more agile solution so the technology can be quickly repurposed if the situation requires.

Our mantra is: the picker does the picking, the cart does the walking

Where does Synergy come into this and how have you been supporting organisations by optimising their warehouse environments?

Synergy realised robotics is essential in the warehouse of the future. We examined the robotics market and concluded we could create our own robotic solution that exactly met the operational requirements of the future. Many of the existing vendors came from a robotics engineering background and had scant knowledge of how a warehouse actually works. Put simply, we knew the problem and designed the solution, in contrast to other vendors which had a solution and were looking for the problem.

Synergy is launching a new autonomous mobile robot in the third quarter of 2021. How are you looking to disrupt the market with this robot?

Synergy’s robot, SnapCart, is an integral part of our cloud-based warehouse management system, SnapFulfil, which controls in real time all resources within the warehouse. It works within an existing warehouse. It is non-disruptive and allows retailers to incorporate SnapCarts into their fulfilment operations at their own pace. We have also created a cut-down version of SnapFulfil, SnapPick, which allows warehouse operators to use an existing warehouse management system and incorporate the robotic SnapCart picking solution into their fulfilment process.

How will SnapCart take warehouse efficiency to new levels?

SnapFulfil optimises the SnapCart loading in order to “cluster” the picks and create the most efficient route to minimise the travel time and the number of pick locations visited. SnapCart makes the pickers far more productive as they are picking, not walking. Higher volumes can be processed by the existing workforce and it is also easier to flex the throughput to accommodate the inevitable peaks and troughs that occur in ecommerce, such as during promotional periods like Black Friday. While robots are very good at moving goods autonomously from A to B, it’s important we still recognise humans are better at activities which require flexible, manipulative or dexterous skills. Our mantra is: the picker does the picking, the cart does the walking.

What role will robotics play in the future of supply chain innovation?

Innovation has never been more required. The supply chain already uses cutting-edge technology and Synergy’s embrace of robotics will make us one of the leaders in this arena. To meet customer expectations for instant satisfaction, more micro-fulfilment centres will spring up to shorten the last-mile delivery distance. Synergy is one of the few vendors combining hardware and software for an integrated, holistic solution that can be deployed with minimum disruption. It sounds simple, but believe me it is not.

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