Amazon.com Inc. recently told its Fulfillment by Amazon partners that it was “temporarily prioritizing household staples, medical supplies, and other high-demand products coming into our fulfillment centers so that we can more quickly receive, restock and deliver these products to customers.” Sellers and vendors of other products had to find other channels to keep orders moving. Distribution Management and 6 River Systems Inc. offered their fulfillment services and automation, respectively, as an alternative.
St. Louis-based DM Fulfillment Services has five highly automated fulfillment centers around the U.S. Waltham, Mass.-based 6 River Systems provides collaborative mobile robots to help warehouse workers. While Amazon eventually relaxed its restrictions on other consumer goods, the COVID-19 pandemic continues to put workforce and demand pressures on retailers and e-commerce companies that robots can help relieve.
The Robot Report recently spoke with Greg Welchans, president and chief marketing officer at Distribution Management; Bill Erpelding, director of marketing at Distribution Management; and Fergal Glynn, vice president of marketing at 6 River Systems. They described how robots can maintain business continuity in stressful times.
How has Distribution Management been using 6 River Systems’ Chuck robot?
Welchans: When we made the decision to expand our warehouses, it was an opportunity to rethink how we pick items and the technology we use. The three primary reasons we chose to use 6 River Systems was to improve productivity, alleviate the pressure of hiring new employees, and increase the velocity of picks. We’ve had 38% increase in picking speeds.
Adding robots has made it simpler and faster to train people, and we now have less than 10% turnover. Chuck enables us to keep the people we’ve got.
How does its design compare with that of other mobile robots?
Erpelding: DM was in the right place at the right time to implement this technology. Our small-package pick path was very conveyor-heavy and inflexible.
It was really easy for our employees to get to know Chuck and start working quickly in our warehouses.
One side of our business is as a wholesale distributor of printer-related products, and another is third-party fulfillment. We had to change the floor space toward the docks to have more room, and Chuck allowed us to reduce the amount of conveyors. In third-party logistics [3PL], items could be anything — pallets of water or T-shirts. We needed to be able to reconfigure as needed as our business continues to change.
Welchans: There has definitely been a shift in demand, with our print business down about 30%. But third-party fulfillment has had a huge spike, driven by certain product categories. Customers focused on healthcare are deemed essential, and we’ve found spikes in demand for water, as well as cleaning and disinfecting.
With some customers not being able to distribute through Amazon, we’ve had a big influx of business. We have full integration with Walmart.com and Amazon.com to help brands reach their customers.
How do robots help you maintain worker satisfaction and meet these demands?
Welchans: We have to commend our warehousing staff and management during this situation. The company’s success is predicated on their ability to work, with or without robots. We’re keeping people employed when many are facing furloughs or layoffs. We’ve gotten positive feedback, and people appreciate that they’re important to our business.
Glynn: Our No. 1 priority is supporting customers like Distribution Management. We were already set up to work from anywhere, and a deployment engineer can support the company from her home in Massachusetts.
Last year, we started a “Hot Swap” program. It’s a zero-touch process that we implemented over a year ago to enable warehouses to experience minimal downtime when remotely resolving hardware issues with Chuck.
The process starts with our Reliability Team tagging the faulty Chuck to be hot-swapped at the client’s warehouse. A loaner Chuck is then configured for that client’s exact system so it has the same name and site map in order to join the labor queue as soon as it arrives at the warehouse.
The loaner is then shipped to the client in an easy-access, reusable crate, ready to be turned on and put to work immediately, with no mapping or provisioning required. Our customer then puts the non-functional Chuck inside the same crate, and we coordinate all shipping logistics back to our engineers to get it back up and running.
Once our team is able to get the Chuck to its fully functional state, we swap it back for the loaner. It’s as if the warehouse was never operating without it. This hot-swap process was initially designed to remotely support customers to reduce downtime and has turned out to be critical in times like this when our engineers cannot be on-site to fix a problem.
As far as our active sites, we’re still able to operate at the rates we promise.
How will the pandemic affect supply chains in the longer term?
Glynn: Nobody expects things to go back to exactly how they were. The supply chain lessons will depend on the type of business. 3PLs and e-commerce retailers will be the first movers, trying to distinguish themselves.
Buying products online and picking them up at a store or curbside will be more popular. We’ll also see more fulfillment centers at the edges of urban areas and even mini fulfillment centers in cities.
Automation is necessary to helping them be more efficient. There will be tremendous investments in software and hardware to provide end-to-end fulfillment. The market will demand different fulfillment capabilities, and B2C [business-to-consumer] companies will need to give customers bespoke fulfillment options.
How has the novel coronavirus affected 6 River Systems’ own supply chains?
Glynn: We have a robust supply chain, and we source parts from all over the world. While we don’t know how long the crisis will last in the U.S., manufacturing capabilities in China are back up to 80%. For us, that means there’s still some predictability on getting parts in time.
At this stage, we’re not seeing geographic differences in demand for mobile robots, but it may be too soon to tell.
6 River Systems is defaulting to work from home at this time. We are allowing travel to customer sites such as Distribution Management and one-at-a-time visits to our headquarters if it is for work that can only be performed there. We continue to bring on new customers and turn on new sites, if it’s deemed essential, through the crisis.
At present, we have a small number of deployment engineers on-site to support implementations as well as multiple go-lives planned in the coming weeks and months. Our engineers have been advised to complete as much work as possible from their remote accommodations, working on-site in the warehouse only when necessary.
The reality of our business is that we can move fast, but there’s a process we go through with every customer. We start with an analysis of the current warehouse — which can be done in a matter of days — even before we’d consider sending Chuck.
I think many companies will think twice about adopting automation, so we’re now investing in additional ways for remote pre-sales support.