Running a warehouse is an ongoing exercise in optimizing speed, efficiency and accuracy.  Achieving concurrent excellence in all three has always been elusive, a dynamic exacerbated by the precipitous growth of ecommerce and, more recently, the implications of social distancing.

Adding additional complexity is the fact retail locations are now pulling double duty as both customer-centric stores and ecommerce fulfillment hubs, presenting challenges to both store management as well as upstream supply chains.

Fortunately, a new generation of technology solutions built on the tenets of rapid deployment and end-user empowerment has emerged, providing warehouse managers with new tools to increase automation, compliance, and, perhaps most importantly, dexterity.

The Democratization of Bots

From above, a warehouse looks a bit like a beehive, with workers and machines darting back and forth to stock inventory and assemble shipments.  Depending on the scale of the operation, this interplay of continuous motion, which looks synchronized from above, can be devilishly complex.

The job of moving inventory has, for some time, been shared by both humans and robots.  Indeed, way back in 2009 my colleague Christopher Steiner wrote a piece for Forbes about the successful implementation of Kiva bots in a Denver-based Staples warehouse.  And while bots have continued their ascent (Kiva was acquired by Amazon in 2012), the deployment and management of bots has remained somewhat akin to an ERP – time consuming to implement and challenging to rapidly evolve.

Attempting to address this challenge is an AMR (Autonomous Mobile Robot) company in San Jose called Fetch Robotics, which was founded two years after Kiva was acquired by Amazon.  Through their technology, their aim is to democratize bots by placing their management directly in the hands of the shop floor.  Powering this shift is a newly released Workflow Builder, a no-code interface that enables workers to create and iterate on workflows until perfect, allowing the deployment of AMRs in hours.

In many ways, this is akin to what’s happening to knowledge-based office work via RPA tools, where managers and workers themselves are being provided with no-code tools that allow them to model workflows in graphical tools that enable work to be automated.

This new Fetch solution is powered by cloud-based architecture and fueled by massive amounts of sensor data collected from the AMRs themselves to identify areas of the facility where safety can be improved or efficiencies realized.

Partnership with Zebra

 To fully capitalize on the promise of optimal warehouse flow, the operation of these bots must be synchronized with the people working alongside them on the floor.  On March 9th, 2020, Fetch and Zebra announced an exciting partnership that “not only optimizes collaborative picking across multiple orders while dynamically orchestrating workers and robots, but does so for piece picking, case picking, and pallet building.”  Importantly, this new solution synchronizes the activities of both bots and people, enabling collaborative picking that’s both faster and more accurate.

From a technology perspective, these benefits are realized by leveraging both Fetch AMRs and Zebra Fulfillment Edge, the latter which can include a head-mounted display to enrich the flow of information to workers.

Zebra, it should be noted, is no stranger to bots, deploying their own SmartSite devices to collect data in retail settings used to suggest corrective actions related to needed replenishments, planogram compliance and pricing mismatches.

Looking to the future, it will be exciting to observe the evolution of these cloud-based, rapid implementation solutions that are moving the power to enable continuous improvement back to the business.  Their work holds the power to more fully bridge the gap between the massive potential of IoT data and the business processes that benefit from consuming them.