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How Robotic Automation Impacts E-Commerce

Since the pandemic took us all by surprise, our world has undergone a major transformation in how we live and work. But amidst these unforeseen changes, there has been a silver lining for the fulfillment and logistics industries: unprecedented growth. As a robotic automation company , we’ve witnessed this phenomenon firsthand and understand the driving force behind it.
The key factor fueling this market growth is the concept of omni-channel fulfillment. We’ve observed a significant shift in customer demand, which has compelled retailers, suppliers, and third-party logistics companies (3PLs) to adapt and develop capabilities to cater to multiple channels.
At TW Automation, we recognize the critical role robotics play in addressing these evolving needs. By embracing robotic automation solutions, companies can not only cope with the current demands of the industry but also go above and beyond to exceed their customers’ expectations. Let’s explore why these innovative technologies have become an essential aspect of modern fulfillment strategies. Factory Automation with robot arm picks up the box to AGV in transportation.

Changes In E-Commerce

Over the past decade, the e-commerce landscape has steadily progressed, but the emergence of the COVID situation acted as a catalyst, propelling the fulfillment sector into rapid evolution. Now, a year into the pandemic, suppliers are faced with the challenge of efficiently delivering products to their customers, regardless of the order channel utilized, ensuring timely and accurate deliveries.
This surge in demand is a direct result of the remarkable growth in e-commerce, coupled with a swiftly rising shortage of labor in the market. As we delve into various fulfillment approaches, it becomes evident that robotics have become indispensable tools, not merely to meet but to surpass customers’ expectations.
As system integrators embark on an automation project for fulfillment, gaining a comprehensive understanding of the distribution channel and the specific application niche of the robotic solution becomes paramount. This knowledge empowers the integrator to discern crucial aspects such as product characteristics, packaging requirements, expected volume, and the existing upstream and downstream processes.
By delving into these distribution channels, we can ensure that products reach customers at the right place, precisely when needed, and through their preferred ordering channel. This approach allows us to tailor our robotic solutions to perfectly align with the unique demands and intricacies of each fulfillment scenario, ensuring seamless and efficient operations throughout the entire process.

Products in the Right Place

Traditionally people shop at a store or order from the store’s website and receive the item at home or at their business. Companies are allowing an order through any channel, and the customer takes possession through a variety of methods including pickup in-store, delivery to a home or business, or receiving items at other locations like a locker consolidation point. Customers want choices regarding the places where they can receive purchased items.

Products at the Right Time

Over the past decade, a significant portion of fulfillment technology investment has been driven by the imperative to optimize order cycle time. This cycle begins when a customer places an order and concludes when they receive the product or pick it up. In the era before two-day shipping became the standard, meeting this challenge required the implementation of innovative technologies to deliver products to consumers within the specified timeframe.
Today, customers’ expectations have evolved, demanding even shorter delivery windows, p ro mpting retailers to bolster their omni-channel capabilities to meet these demands. As an e-commerce business, it becomes crucial to ask yourself, what order cycle time are we striving to achieve? Simultaneously, for automation system integrators, the pivotal question becomes, what order cycle time does our customer wish to attain?
Order cycle time is going to dictate the type of network that will allow goods to be fulfilled on time, whether it’s two-day, one-day or even same day.

Products Purchased via any Order Channel

As customer expectations continue to evolve, the ability to seamlessly order online or purchase in-store while assuming retailers possess these distribution capabilities has become the norm. The blend of order cycle time and delivery or pick-up preferences necessitates that retailers adopt distinct strategies to fulfill these expectations effectively.
In today’s dynamic landscape, items can originate from various sources, such as distribution centers (DC), fulfillment centers (FC), omni-channel fulfillment centers (OCF), dark stores (DC), third-party logistics supplier facilities (3PL), warehouses, or even directly from manufacturers. Moreover, these items may be destined for diverse destinations, including residences, stores, businesses, or other partners within the supply chain.
As order and delivery methods grow and change, more fulfillment companies are looking to implement intelligent automation solutions that accommodate customer order methods, and deliver products to the right place at the right time. ecommerce robot automation

Product and Package Variability are Important

When developing solutions, product and packaging variabilities are key factors that will dictate the amount of flexibility needed. For example, the higher the variability in the overall number of SKU’s means more variability of package types. In addition, more seasonal products will increase SKU’s over time.
In a robotic system, addressing flexibility needs may come in the form of flexible gripping technology, or machine learning and artificial intelligence technologies applied to these systems in order to handle the diversity in SKUs and packaging.

Working with the Right System Integrator

When it comes to automation, just like any other industry, choosing the right system integrator is paramount. Technical expertise, profound automation know-how, and industry experience are the cornerstones of a successful partnership in the fulfillment realm. Qualified integrators collaborate closely with their customers, diligently understanding cycle time objectives, the facility’s purpose, the intended use of automation, and the ultimate destination of the products leaving the facility.
Furthermore, for some customers, dealing with customer returns, particularly in the fashion industry where return rates can be as high as 40%, is a crucial aspect to consider. Regardless of the process requirements, a competent system integrator will step in, providing valuable recommendations, and executing a tailored solution.
This solution may encompass an array of cutting-edge technologies, including standard industrial robots, collaborative robots (cobots), autonomous mobile robots, drones, or even a combination of these technologies.

Solving Labor Issues

Amid the unprecedented challenges brought on by the pandemic, businesses across industries are grappling with the dual challenge of finding and retaining labor while striving to keep up with the exponential growth of e-commerce. The uncertainties surrounding COVID have led to increased sick leaves and quarantine periods, making it harder for companies to maintain their operations.
The exponential growth in e-commerce indicates a three to four-fold increase in demand for warehouse labor over the coming decade. To address this challenge proactively, businesses should act now, leveraging robotics to enhance efficiency, reduce risks, and ensure smooth operations in the face of evolving demands and workforce constraints.

How are Robots Being Used in E-Commerce?

The market for robots in e-commerce is definitely in its infancy, but even so, there’s an increasing number of robots and other technologies that are now being used for a variety of fulfillment tasks, including:

Direct to customer e-commerce order

This is when a customer orders a product online and it goes to the fulfillment center, or omni-channel facility, then to the parcel network for delivery.
In this scenario, customers might use traditional robotic palletizing applications such as end-of-line, mixed-order or homogeneous. Think about when the goods come into a fulfillment or omni-channel center, and a portion of the center is allocated to direct customer orders that will be sent to customer-specified locations. It’s likely that the fulfillment center does not want to receive a whole pallet of goods, but would prefer a mixed order pallet with 5-10 items from of a particular SKU – this situation is definitely an opportunity for traditional palletizing. On the inbound side, robots can be used for:

  • Unloading trucks for homogenous de-palletizing: bringing a homogenous pallet into the fulfillment center.
  • Heterogeneous de-palletizing: separating products and placing them into bins for storage.
  • Sortation induction: grabbing a good and putting it onto a conveyor sortation system.
  • De-canting: getting items out of a carton.

On the outbound side, robots can be used for:

  • Handling bins: grab an empty bin and move it to a conveyor.
  • Each picking: most challenging when a customer orders four things and you need to build that particular order – advanced technologies like vision are required to process each order.
  • After pack out: potentially another opportunity for outbound sortation on the truck loading side.

Understanding Technology Development

Because the market for robots is in its infancy in the various e-commerce segments, there are many companies working on new application development.
For technology developers, there’s a huge opportunity to create products that fit the needs of customers in the market. There are also risks associated with doing the right things to meet customer needs. From an integrator’s standpoint you need to be careful who you work with, and make sure you pilot and demo the new technology before you implement it into the real world.
Currently, e-commerce includes picking, placing and other material handling processes, and it’s likely there will be many standardized applications in the near future.
As the world moves forward, more opportunities to design for automation up-front will happen because in most cases there will be a robotic solution for the task.
Contact TW Automation for more information on how automation can enhance your company’s workflow.