Following the substantial boom the e-commerce industry has seen over the past few years and the resulting pressure on warehousing facilities, sales growth is beginning to slow from its pre-pandemic peak.
Top Stores: Smart Warehouses and Evolving E-Commerce
Article by | Optical Knight
As we begin to wonder what the future holds for e-commerce, Knight Optical – the leading provider of premium custom optical components – explores the technology that warehouses have turned to in their most turbulent times.
When the pandemic hit, e-commerce sales skyrocketed. With vulnerable people unable to leave the house and the resulting lockdowns and restrictions, we have relied on online shopping like never before. Subsequently, the pressure has been on warehouses around the world – especially those that house groceries – and with soaring “panic buying”, COVID-related staffing shortages, social distancing guidelines to meet and supply chain issues, keeping pace with supply and demand was a struggle. Many of these premises have turned to automation to meet the increased demands without breaking the rules.
Here, we study the world of e-commerce and learn about the automation systems used to respond to the influx of orders that many businesses have received throughout the pandemic.
Supermarkets and food delivery
Let’s start with the most widely used form of online shopping that has seen delivery slots turn to gold dust: online grocery shopping. Supermarket consumer behaviors have changed dramatically during the lockdowns and tiered systems of 2020 and 2021. While physical stores have remained open as essential services, many people (whether vulnerable, self-isolated or simply concerned about the spread of the virus) have chosen to use online shopping services.
Automated grocery store
Many customers have turned to virtual supermarket Ocado during the pandemic to fulfill their grocery orders, with sales up 20% in May 212. As an online business with no physical store, warehousing has always been a requirement for Ocado’s operations; therefore, it has always been at the forefront of cutting-edge warehouse technology.
In 2018, Ocado unveiled its automated warehouse in Andover, UK, where thousands of robots worked around the clock packing groceries. Working on a grid-based structure and managed through an air traffic control system, these fast robots have a maximum speed of four meters per second. At the end of the process, humans pack the goods, ready for shipment (although at one of the company’s sites a robotic arm fitted with a suction cup was used to undertake this final task). Unfortunately, an electrical failure with one of the robot’s battery charging units led to the facility burning down in 2019. It has since been rebuilt, with lessons learned from the cause of the fire .
Like Ocado’s tech warehousing, UK-based supermarket chain Tesco teamed up with its warehouse tech partner Swisslog (used in multiple Ocado distribution centres) in 2020 to perform at its logistics centers across the UK. The technology specified is a pallet storage and retrieval system that uses robots on a conveyor belt to pick up and drop off pallets of goods. With up to 60% more storage capacity3, at a time when panic buying and empty shelves were becoming the norm, this technology was imperative to meet the country’s food needs.
Last mile logistics
However, warehousing wasn’t the only division in the grocery industry to embrace the new technology. Following the challenges posed by labor shortages during the pandemic, companies explored other forms of automation that removed exclusive reliance on human operations. One example is part of last mile delivery, where several companies are at the forefront of self-driving home delivery. Brands such as Starship Technologies, which have produced autonomous robots that deliver groceries and takeout to restaurants, are aimed specifically at food deliveries. Another example is Udelv, which uses human-assisted guidance for mid- and last-mile delivery circumstances, seeking to automate the delivery journey with autonomous vehicles.
With offline brick-and-mortar stores displaying “we are closed” signs repeatedly throughout the pandemic, there has clearly been a monumental drop in retail sales worldwide. Unlike groceries, total retail sales volume fell 1.9% in 2020, the largest annual decline on record4. In the same year, overall online sales reached an all-time high of 33.9% as a share of all retail spending4, and on November 21, clothing store sales volumes for the first time exceeded pre-coronavirus levels5.
Moving away from the pandemic, there are other pressing factors to consider in retail, such as the need for items to arrive quickly with same-day and next-day delivery options. Online retailer ASOS is a well-known fashion brand that runs a sought-after next-day delivery system, which sets it apart from its competitors. The fashion company sets itself above its peers with lightning-fast delivery by investing in automation and cutting-edge systems within its warehouses. In its most recent announcement, ASOS revealed that it is investing in robotics for the expansion of its Atlanta-based warehouse in a project that is expected to be completed next year6.
Gap is another clothing brand reaping the benefits of automation. The fashion retailer has used robotic technology to eliminate human touch processes during the pandemic. Supplied by Kindred AI, the machines used in the Gap warehouse are capable of undertaking tasks that typically require four people7.
Most recently in store, ABB Robotics demonstrated the potential future of retail with an impressive storefront in Oxford Street’s Selfridges. The leading automation company’s robotic arm sits proudly in the famous department store’s window display by 3D printing custom designer products from Parley Ocean Plastic. The installation aims to raise awareness of how purchased goods are made and shows what offline and online retail could look like in the future.
Perhaps one of the most recognized e-commerce companies in the world, Amazon still reaped the benefits of online commerce when the lockdowns began. With essentials, like toiletries and even groceries, at customers’ fingertips and next-day delivery being the norm, the online retailer has become a valuable resource for those who couldn’t leave the home.
Amazon has grown tremendously since its founding in 1994, and its forward-thinking philosophy has earned the company the reputation it has today. One of its most recent innovations was its notification of a “floating warehouse” where deliveries would arrive via drones, demonstrating its innovative approach to growth and development in the years to come. The online giant reported that moving its operations from the ground to the air would save the company $887 billion8.
The retail and e-commerce worlds are undoubtedly heading for a high-tech revolution as delivery demands and expectations escalate even further. Whether it’s overhead warehouses, high-speed robotic pickers and packers in modern warehouses, nifty robotic arms bagging goods for shipping, or even driverless vehicles undertaking the “last mile”, at Knight Optical, we’re ready for the uprising in smart warehouses. . As a leading supplier of optical components for autonomous technologies, such as robots and LiDAR-based systems, we look forward to working on the next generation of warehouse solutions.
Why choose Knight Optical for your application?
Demanding customers rely on Knight Optical not only for the superior quality of our production and the video capabilities of the state-of-the-art metrology lab and quality assurance department, but because – as well as a range of optics from stock (available for next day dispatch) – we also offer our optics as custom components.
Last year, we celebrated our 30 years of activity. With over three decades of experience under our belt and a host of long-time, world-renowned customers on our books, we are proud to have worked on some of the most groundbreaking innovations.
The content and opinions of this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of RoboticsTomorrow
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Brenton is a leader in robotic solutions with standard product offerings including palletizing and depalletizing for an efficient option for transporting difficult-to-handle products, as well as larger-scale systems with an optimized footprint; and case and carton loading solutions for many industries. Additionally, Brenton works with customers on integrated solutions, offering robotics across a wide spectrum of robotics to fully integrate end-of-line systems. Brenton helps packaging customers protect their reputation and build consumer confidence.