AutoStore: Designing Future-Proof Automation Technology
Scalability and flexibility are no doubt the focus of today and the future in distribution and production. Utilizing bins, bots and ports, the AutoStore goods to person technology brings a grid-based approach that allows customers to shrink their storage space exponentially while increasing their capacity for smarter, faster operations. Working together since 2013, last year Bastian Solutions expanded its portfolio of global partners with AutoStore to further support customers wherever they may be, providing them increased capacity, flexibility and accuracy.
We talked to Paul Roy, Vice President and Managing Director of AutoStore North America, for a deeper insight on the technology and future of DC automation development.
“Scalability is imperative. No one wants to spend millions on an automation solution only to run out of space in 2-3 years before the ROI is even realized. COVID-19 has shown us that retailers are dependent on supply chains and their workforce. When one part of that goes down, the system goes down,” says Paul Roy.
Q: The ability to scale operations is a big focus right now with the uncertainties of COVID-19 – investment capital, workforce changes, and future planning. What kind of flexibility does AutoStore technology bring?
From a scalability perspective, we say AutoStore is future-proof. When looking at company growth, whether in demand, increase in SKUs or some other factor, the AutoStore design supports expansion. This could be as simple as adding more robots or bins to the system to expanding the grid completely for additional space. We have some clients on their 5th grid expansion. The system is also designed with backward compatibility. When new modules are designed and released, they will work on older systems. For example, our B1 robot released in 2019 can be installed on a grid that has been in operation for 15 years.
When looking at workforce safety, AutoStore provides the perfect environment here. Before COVID, our system provided a safe work environment as workers did not encounter robots and the picking stations have safety features in place to reduce the risk of injury. Now with the need to create distance between staff, AutoStore again can step up. Picking stations are located a safe distance from each other and since the robots bring the goods to the picker, staff are not moving around and interacting with each other to perform tasks.
Q: What benefits and optimizations does AutoStore technology bring to an operation?
AutoStore has provided value to brands and warehouses for over 20 years. The biggest three are density, speed and reliability. Our system is the densest storage and order fulfillment system available. Most of our customers were able to stay in their location after installing an AutoStore system.
It is also one of the fastest systems. The system works ahead of the pickers meaning the system is usually preparing bins to be presented to the pickers as they work to fill orders with all the bins needed for this to occur. One customer has reported it takes his team less than a minute to fulfill an order from click to ship.
And the third way is reliability. Our system-wide uptime is 99.6%. This uptime is a goal we strive to maintain with all our technology. Part of the reason we can do this is because our system is made up of standard modules, regardless of the size. The entire system has only five base modules which can be configured in any shape.
Q: What does the future of autonomous, goods to person systems look like?
There are still a lot of operations out there relying on manual fulfillment. However, I believe the adoption rate of automation will only accelerate, especially after the world events of the last year. And where it is used will greatly expand; it isn’t just for large warehouses or distribution centers. New technologies and available goods-to-person solutions will increase as new products are brought to market.
But I also think there will be a greater incorporation of piece-picking robots in collaboration with goods-to-person systems. To date, robotic systems tend to run in isolation, interconnected by people or traditional automation. The first robot-to-robot applications are starting to be proven, the so called “Goods2Robot”, and even a robotic automated storage and retrieval system with a picking robot feeding a robotic sorter. These setups are gaining attention but aren’t default technologies for large projects.
Q: Goods to person systems have been around for a while and there are numerous combinations of technologies that can be implemented to create custom solutions. How has the focus evolved for these systems?
Customer buying behaviors are shifting and the recent pandemic has thrown a new light on automation and its place in the supply chain and order fulfillment. And not just order fulfillment at the distribution center level, but at the local level. Retailers are realizing the infrastructure isn’t in place to meet immediate demand while keeping staff safe.
Automation is also being discussed on a much smaller scale than it was even five years ago. By this I mean, retailers and vendors aren’t just looking at how to automate a distribution center, but also at how the technology can be utilized in a smaller location like the backroom of a store. This growing demand has led to many new startups entering in the space offering a variety of technology.
Q: What kind of concepts or focus is top of mind for future tech development?
I think what we will watch for in the coming years is how buying behaviors have changed because of COVID-19 and various lockdowns around the world. Researchers and surveys are showing that those adjustments that consumers made during this time are here to stay. It has already caused a major shift in how retailers and brands are interacting with their customers with many scrambling to meet the demand.
I think we will also see a greater collaboration from brands on how they can merge the brick-and-mortar location with e-commerce. A recent report from Coresight Research showed retailers are planning to open more stores in 2021 than they will close. One reason is because a traditional store can offer customer experiences that just can’t happen online.
But these stores will also find a more secure position within the e-commerce supply chain. This will most likely be through micro-fulfillment centers. I think the rising interest for “buy online, pick up in store” (BOPIS) and the desire of retailers to offer a better in-store shopping experience will drive automation to that local level. Retailers are looking for ways to remove employee or third-party order fulfillment traffic from crowding store aisles and getting in the way of in-store shoppers.
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