Not only did recent walkouts at Amazon and Instacart warehouses highlight worker concerns about a lack of protection against the novel coronavirus, but they also provided a reminder of difficult working conditions in warehouses worldwide. At Ingram Micro, staffers had to push heavy carts long distances in one facility. The company recently turned to robots from 6 River Systems Inc. to improve conditions and productivity.
Irvine, Calif.-based Ingram Micro is a major distributor of technology products. “Our mobility business touches two out of every three phones in the U.S.,” said Glen Sutton, senior vice president for the Americas at Ingram Micro Commerce & Lifecycle Services. “This includes forward and reverse logistics; repair and refurbishment; and support for AT&T, T-Mobile, etc.”
Ingram Micro has more than 6,000 direct employees and international lines of business. It is no stranger to automation and uses automated storage and retrieval systems (ASRS).
“Historically, Ingram Micro has operated a number of automated facilities, using pick towers with conveyors that route through the facility to pack stations and out to transport nodes,” Sutton told Collaborative Robotics Trends. “We’ve recently invested in automation startups, as well as technology such as OPEX Perfect Pick, which we are using in a facility in Dallas.”
“Ingram Micro has worked with customers implementing other technologies in Louisville, Ky., such as supporting fashion retail B2C [business-to-consumer operations],” he said. “Manual picking carts were used in that building, and that retailer had 40,000 SKUs [stock-keeping units]. This used a significant amount of storage space spread across a large facility.”
“With that profile and proliferation of SKUs, there was a lot of movement, and without robotic conveyance, a lot of people moving from Point A to Point B,” recalled Sutton. “Once full batches were picked, the carts were heavy, and like many warehouse operators, we had worker attrition. How could we apply robots to help?”
“From August to December, we implemented 6 River Systems’ robots,” Sutton said. “Chuck would come to the people at the pick face and tell them which SKUs to pick. Then, the robots would move to putwalls.”
“It was relatively simple to integrate into our pick wall, Accutech auto-bagger, and homegrown warehouse management system,” he added. “We originally trialed 10 robots, and during peak period, we had 60, a good portion of which were leased.”
Ingram Micro’s staff embraced Chuck pretty quickly, according to Sutton.
“Pushing a heavy cart with product across long distances was not very efficient,” he said. “Asking people to stay in zones where robots would come to them got them pretty excited. Employees understand it’s about assisting them, and they get to learn how the technology works and be part of the solution with the robot.”
Results at Ingram Micro
“Operational efficiency is critical to providing an accurate and fast delivery experience, and the demand for this continues to grow,” stated Sutton. “Our solution from 6 River Systems enables us to increase our throughput and get more orders out the door and into customers’ hands.”
“As we scaled up for deployment in August, we saw sizable increases in productivity that were better than anticipated,” he said. “Because of the quick learning curve, we needed less labor for the holiday rush than expected.”
“By the low point of January, we had the same amount of labor as in the peak period, which had 10 times the volume, by making sure to use batch-picking technology and robots to move goods,” he said. “We had done a full business case, and the return on investment was pretty quick — a little more than a year and a half.”
In addition to labor savings, a robotics-as-a-service (RaaS) model helps with fluctuating capacity. “An interesting part of using 6 River is that we can add or reduce the number of Chucks in a leasing scenario,” Sutton said.
Chuck gets enhancements
Earlier this month, 6 River Systems added larger and multilevel workspaces to its Chuck collaborative mobile robot. It can carry up to six levels, for a total of 43.5 cubic feet or 4 cubic meters, and a payload of up too 200 lb. or 90.7kg.
Chuck also conforms to international safety and usability requirements, said 6 River Systems. Its patent-pending safety complies with safety standards including CE and UL 1740, and it uses standardized lighting, images, and prompts for usability.
Robotics partnerships signal maturity
“The acquisition had no impact, and it validates our decision to use Chuck,” said Sutton. “Like DHL, we explored other technologies. 6 River has been very open to working with senior people at our site, and it has been very flexible as a company.”
6 River Systems has also partnered with robotic gripper makers Soft Robotics Inc. and RightHand Robotics Inc. for automated picking. At MODEX 2020, Packsize International demonstrated how Chuck works with its iQ3 on-demand packaging system.
“It’s going very well. Some companies want ‘lights-out’ operations, which is quite exciting,” said Sutton. “We expect to mix it up with a full suite of technologies, and there’s definitely an application for integration with Perfect Pick, Chuck, and HDS in the future.”