Today’s retail customer utilizes technology that has drastically advanced their expectations. For grocery, modernizing through automation is the optimal way to meet them. Advances in microfulfillment allow you to embrace affordable, user-friendly systems that respond to modern shopper demands while greatly improving the end experience for customers. Cuhaci & Peterson Architects PULSE Integration and KPS Global are teaming up to provide powerful end-to-end solutions to reimagine grocery for a brighter future — starting now.
Surging e-commerce sales appear to be accelerating demand for logistics automation as retailers adjust their business models to adapt to changing economic conditions and consumer behavior. One of the industries that has been most impacted by recent changes is the grocery industry, which has witnessed a 43% increase in e-commerce grocery sales between March 2020 and 2021, according to Brick Meets Click data (via Grocery Dive). However, as the chief marketing officer of a company that offers micro-fulfillment technologies and services, I believe specialty retailers, department stores, warehouse clubs and big-box retailers can all benefit from the use of micro-fulfillment.
Prior to 2020, retailers would often adjust to increased demand for online groceries by hiring more people to fulfill and deliver online orders, or contracting with a third-party fulfillment company like Shipt or Instacart.
Recently, however, a small number of grocery retailers began to experiment with a new technology designed to automate grocery fulfillment.
Micro-fulfillment centers, or MFCs, contain robotic systems from companies like AutoStore, Attabotics or Alert Innovation. Retailers can install MFCs inside a grocery store, beside a grocery store in a separate building or inside a “dark store” where inventory and products are staged but customers are not allowed to enter.
I believe MFCs are quickly becoming the next big thing in retail, and Research and Markets projects that they will amount to a $10 billion opportunity by 2026.
2021 has seen an explosion in popularity for MFCs: H.E.B., Ahold Delhaize, Kroger, Walmart, Albertsons and many other grocery retailers are installing or assessing the use of MFCs within their grocery ecosystems. Third-party online fulfillment company Instacart is exploring the use of MFCs to fulfill orders for their grocery customers.
I believe the growth of MFCs will have a significant impact on the grocery industry. However, not all grocery retailers have the desire or capabilities to purchase and install their own micro-fulfillment centers. This has created the opportunity for a new business within the grocery industry to meet the needs of retailers seeking an outsourced solution for micro-fulfillment.
Service Or Solution: What’s Best?
As micro-fulfillment grows in popularity, so too could the desire on the part of grocery retailers to find a way to outsource micro-fulfillment. Several companies offer outsourced micro-fulfillment services, but I’m not convinced that outsourcing micro-fulfillment makes sense strategically or financially based on my research.
For example, robotics companies are great at manufacturing robots but may lack experience running operations for companies across different industries. I can’t stress this point enough — just because a company manufactures micro-fulfillment technology doesn’t mean that it’s an expert at outsourcing, logistics, inventory optimization, transportation, operations or last-mile delivery. Based on my experience, third-party logistics companies that leverage MFCs as part of their logistics and supply chain solutions are often the most qualified for managing outsourced micro-fulfillment requirements.
Typically, outsourced micro-fulfillment providers utilize MFCs to fulfill online orders for multiple customers at the lowest costs. I disagree with the business model for one simple reason: Micro-fulfillment centers aren’t always enough.
My experience in micro-fulfillment led me to design what I refer to as Micro-fulfillment as a Solution, or MaaS. I originally referred to MaaS as Micro-fulfillment as a Service, but upon reflection, I concluded that grocery retailers and the retail industry need a solution for their fulfillment requirements more than they need a company that only provides a service to fulfill online orders.
I do not market MaaS. I created the concept of MaaS to improve the micro-fulfillment industry. Everyone is free to leverage the information contained in this article to their benefit.
MaaS is a solution whereby multiple technologies are combined to provide an end-to-end solution for shifting from manual, in-store fulfillment of online grocery orders to utilizing automation to efficiently meet customer demand at lower costs and faster speeds. Among the technologies and strategies a company can consider utilizing are:
- Supply chain network optimization and consulting to identify the optimal number of MFCs required to cost-effectively meet customer demand while achieving the necessary service level for each customer.
- Autonomous mobile robots (AMRs) to streamline material handling and minimize the need for human intervention.
- Automated guided vehicles (AGV) to improve efficiency in manufacturing and warehousing.
- Teleoperated delivery vehicles that can deliver groceries to customers within three miles of an MFC.
- Last-mile delivery software to orchestrate, optimize, route and schedule deliveries.
- Logistics software to optimize and replenish inventory to the MFC.
- Lean Manufacturing and Six Sigma to help eliminate waste in the processes required to fulfill and stage online and curbside pickup orders.
I believe a solution-based approach to fulfilling online grocery can reduce cost and complexity; increase speed of deliveries; and accelerate the process for opening more MFCs to support regional or nationwide fulfillment requirements for grocery retailers.
Retailers can evaluate their operations by contracting a logistics consulting firm or a third-party logistics company. Make sure any company you’re considering has experience in MaaS, micro-fulfillment technology, operations and optimizing logistics. Ask about each one’s process for conducting a thorough review of your retail business and operations to determine if MaaS is right for your needs.
Introducing MaaS requires making changes across many aspects of a retailer’s business, including inventory replenishment, transportation and last-mile delivery, so you should anticipate and address those changes before adopting MaaS.
Interestingly, as an example, an analysis may determine that a retailer should leverage MaaS in specific regions of the U.S. and introduce company-owned micro-fulfillment centers or larger customer fulfillment centers capable of fulfilling thousands of orders weekly in other regions. Situations like these are why it’s important to analyze the needs of the business and identify the optimal strategy versus making decisions based on gut feelings.
I believe e-commerce will continue to grow further, which could strain retail business models and supply chains. Based on my experience, MaaS is an option worth considering.
We take this time to recognize one of our valued associates, Chris Shepperly. Chris is a solutions engineer with over 10 years of experience in automated material handling systems. He is highly proficient in full system design and complex technology applications. While Chris remains a relatively new employee, he has immediately integrated into the Solutions team and has become a key and a pivotal client facing team member. It is here he uses his analysis of data to support best system requirements for design specification.
How does this translate to our clients?
Our Team Is Unsurpassed
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PULSE Integration has been featured as a top material handling system solution provider for 2021 by Logistics Tech Outlook Magazine.
Logistic Tech Outlook provides an annual listing of 10 companies that are at the forefront of providing material handling system solutions and transforming businesses. The magazine is read by over 68,000 subscribers who are key decision-makers in the logistics sector.
The magazine also features contributory articles from senior management executives from distribution, warehousing, manufacturing, supply chain experts, logistics professionals, and other technology decision makers on how material handling solutions improved operational performance in their organizations.
OTTO Motors and PULSE Integration have partnered to implement one of the world’s largest deployments of AMR technology. The OTTO material handling platform was deployed at a billion dollar company that is a household name in consumer goods. This was in part because of the ability for the AMR platform to flexibly, reliably and safely move materials but the strength of the business case was a deciding factor in the choice to implement OTTO.
The following conclusions were drawn after a detailed analysis of the OTTO platform vs alternative material handling methods for the customers. When compared for productivity and costs:
- OTTO was 10% the cost of a full-time equivalent for manual cart movement
- OTTO was 50% of the costs associated with a driver and a forklift.
- OTTO was 66% the cost of an AGV equivalent
- OTTO was 50% the cost of a conveyor equivalent
When the customer began its work with PULSE to transform its operations, four methods of material transport were considered. The customer needed a flexible, reliable and safe solution that would optimize materials movement. OTTO AMRs were found to be more flexible than a conveyor and safer than a forklift. The deployment resulted in an ROI of less than two years, and significant cost savings for the operation. The payback drivers included labor savings, increased productivity, improved safety and ergonomics for operators, lower capital costs, and a more compact facility design.
Competitive Advantage Through Automation
Automation has long been used to improve efficiencies within manufacturing as a way to gain competitive advantage. To see how automation has made an impact we need only look at the automotive industry where automation made Ford’s mass production possible and profoundly changed the world.
Today, lights out production–where entire factories are automated–promises the highest efficiencies, but remains elusive for many manufacturers. One of the last forms of automation to make its way onto factory floors is materials handling. Moving materials has remained predominantly a human task. And because it has been considered one of the lowest valued tasks on the factory floor, materials handling has been ripe for automation.
Advancements in robotics, computing power, and AI have made way for a new class of automation for material handling to emerge. The autonomous mobile robot or AMR combines the flexibility of a human with the efficiency of a conveyor while safely moving materials in pedestrian-heavy areas. The first industrialized implementations of the technology have in the last decade. Yet, there have been few examples of meaningfully scaled deployments in manufacturing.
Two Scaled AMR Deployments.
PULSE Integration was initially retained to evaluate various materials handling technologies for two facilities, one greenfield and one brownfield. AMRs, conveyors, forklifts, and automated guided vehicles (AGVs) were evaluated for comparative productivity and costs. The OTTO Materials Handling Platform was selected for both sites. The decision was made because of the ability for the AMR platform to flexibly, reliably, and safely move materials. The strength of the business case was also a deciding factor in the choice to implement OTTO.
OTTO Autonomous Mobile Robots:
10% THE COST
of a full-time human labor equivalent
20% THE COST
of a driver and forklift
Cost savings resulted in:
ROI of <2 YEARS
IRR of >50%
OTTO Autonomous Mobile Robots were found to be 10% the cost of a full-time equivalent for manual cart movement and 20% of the costs associated with a driver and a forklift. OTTO was also compared against fully automated technologies. Again, when directly compared for productivity and costs, OTTO was a fraction of the cost of traditional conveyance and automated guided vehicles (AGV). These cost savings resulted in an ROI of fewer than two years and an IRR of >50%. To achieve these results, the payback drivers included labor savings, increased productivity, improved safety and ergonomics for operators, lower capital costs, and a more compact facility design.
A number of deployment considerations were taken into account for the deployment of the OTTO Materials Handling Platform.
A critical part of the project was in the design phase. The goal of this phase was to design the optimal flow of materials. Simulation was used to compare machine and material staging layout configurations to aid the customer in making decisions about facility layout. By simulating the process options ahead of time, the customer was able to make the best decision for layout and process while de-risking the deployment well before the commissioning of the fleet started.
The teams also used simulation to test how AMRs would react in every scenario. For example, they were able to model the physical constraints of the operation when testing against various parameters like vehicle speed, traffic management, and opportunity charging. Simulation allowed the system designer to stress test the AMR fleet and check for “corner cases.”
A thorough design phase can also be used to prepare for the following situations:
- Restarting a facility after a prolonged shut down (holiday shut down)
- Manufacturing line change over from one product to another
- Recall of goods in an eCommerce operation requiring reverse logistics
- “Cut-over” of plant from manual to autonomous operations
- Introduction of new work process
The downside to manual material handling goes beyond poor utilization of a limited human workforce, it also presents health and safety risks. According to the US Department of Labor, materials handling is the number one cause of compensable injuries. The various mechanisms for transport that are human-powered, such as traditional fork trucks, are fraught with safety issues that can result in injury or death.
OTTO was designed to work around people and other vehicles.
OTTO AMRs are pedestrian-safe robots and use safety-rated sensors. Simply put, OTTO was designed to work around people and other vehicles. This is made possible through sensor fusion and onboard AI to enable local route planning and collision avoidance. OTTO routinely navigates traffic with other vehicles at intersections and passing scenarios using OTTO Fleet Manager. “Rules of the road” can be custom configured per site, including speed limits and sensor sensitivity. Further, OTTO can be programmed to understand the overhang of a load and to account for oversized loads while maneuvering.
At the Greenfield facility, OTTO 100 was used to replace the human labor of transportation carts of materials and goods. The equivalency between humans and AMRs in terms of transport workload is at parity. AMRs travel faster over long distances and their maximum speed is 4.5 miles per hour (a light jog). In short transports and docking maneuvers humans are faster and more nimble.
As a general conversion factor for a large workspace (>100,000 SF) a designer can use an AMR to Human equivalency factor of 1:1. For smaller spaces (<50,000 SF) a more detailed study of maneuvers may be needed to establish the true relationship. The findings from the design was that the OTTO platform generally outperformed simulation expectations.
At the Brownfield facility, OTTO 1500 was selected to replace forklift labor of transporting loaded pallets of finished goods and raw materials. OTTO 1500 can carry a payload of 3,300 lbs on a pallet. OTTO 1500 is compatible with all of the pallets in the facility which included:
- Common wooden pallet types
- Plastic pallets
- Supersack on pallets
- Vendor supplied raw material pallets
- Manufactured WIP and finished goods pallets
The OTTO 1500 is capable of interfacing with manual or automated forklifts via the use of pallet stands, which enable load transfer and for the OTTO1500 to drive underneath the pallet load. While in transport the AMR is beneath the pallet load, meaning the space requirement for maneuvering is little more than the pallet dimensions. Automated processes can be implemented with retrofits to existing equipment or AMR interface design of new equipment.
The Network Effect of Scale
As more AMRs are deployed in the system, the more efficient the entire fleet becomes. As an example, consider that in an operation with substantial human labor, the humans cannot simultaneously communicate to each other. Instead, humans rely on hearing, line of sight, and communication devices like radio. One human that is idle is not instantaneously alerted to a condition of extra work being required somewhere else in the operation. With AMRs, the communication is immediate and the dispatch from Fleet Manager to an idle AMR is done using a combination of computer logic and artificial intelligence. Therefore, as the AMR fleet size grows the efficiency of the fleet improves. For large footprint operations at scale, AMR efficiency can exceed human efficiency.