Gap rushing more robots into warehouses

A robot used by The Gap.

Source: Reuters

The American clothing chain Gap is accelerating its deployment of warehouse robots to assemble online orders to limit human contact during the coronavirus pandemic, the company told Reuters.

Gap reached an agreement earlier this year to more than triple the number of article collection robots it uses to 106 by fall. Then, the pandemic hit North America, forcing the company to close all its stores in the region, including those of Banana Republic, Old Navy and other brands. Meanwhile, its warehouses faced more web orders and fewer staff to fulfill them due to the social distancing rules put in place by Gap.

“We couldn’t safely accommodate so many people in our distribution centers,” said Kevin Kuntz, Gap executive vice president for global logistics. So he called Kindred AI, the vendor who sells the machines, to ask him, “Can you get them there sooner?”

Purchasing parts on time for the eight-foot-high robotic stations was neither simple nor cheap, said Kindred chief operating officer Marin Tchakarov. But the company-backed startup was able to deploy 10 in the Gap warehouse near Nashville, Tennessee and 20 near Columbus, Ohio, with plans to complete the deployment in four of Gap’s five U.S. facilities here. July, months earlier than expected, he said. .

Each machine handles the work typically done by four people, said Kuntz. Neither the agreement to triple the number of robots, nor the accelerated installations have been reported before.

The news illustrates how the pandemic can accelerate automation in the retail industry. Companies such as Gap and Amazon have long used such systems for a range of tasks, such as moving items through warehouses. Various new technologies are capable of supplanting certain roles of cashier, box packing and picking up items that employ millions of American workers, and the pandemic is giving suppliers the opportunity to make their case.

RightHand Robotics, for example, helped its Walmart customer manage more online orders through greater use of its order picking machines that had been deployed in several facilities in the chain, said a person close to the folder. Walmart did not respond to requests for comment.

Vince Martinelli, RightHand product and marketing manager, declined to comment on the deployment, but generally said: “If you have a limited number of people in the building, the last thing you want them to do is a simple task that can be automated. “

In the pandemic, Amazon is also relying more on automation to sort items that warehouse workers have unpacked, eliminating the need for staff to frequently have to walk around each other, the more manual process when required, a declared the company. It seeks to deploy technology more widely in its buildings.

Kindred, RightHand and the robotics company Berkshire Gray told Reuters that they are seeing an increase in demand from potential customers, although travel restrictions and the need to limit human contact make new installations difficult.

Interest is not surprising: researchers at the Brookings Institution said that automation pushes often follow economic shocks, a phenomenon they believe could be replayed as retailers’ sales plummet.

“At these times, employers lose less skilled workers and replace them with more skilled technology and workers, which increases labor productivity as the recession recedes,” says the group’s March report. reflection.

“They never take breaks”

Pressure to make distribution networks more efficient is likely to increase for retailers due to their financial difficulties during the pandemic.

Last month, Gap said it was facing a shortage of cash, which prompted it to borrow $ 2.25 billion. Three-quarters of its last fiscal year revenue came from more than 3,300 physical stores, most of which closed for weeks.

While Gap kept its stores in China in business and started reopening 800 more this month, its e-commerce operation was a lifeline for sales.

Gap, based in San Francisco, did not disclose the financial terms of its agreement with Kindred, or its base salary for the staff. The company said it has around 6,500 warehouse workers, who are receiving higher wages due to the health crisis. It limits the number in establishments due to the health boards of the United States.

Goods from various in-line checkout carts fall into a chute and into a large basin that is part of one of the machines. A robotic arm located above then selects each unit by suction and physical outlet, scans its barcode and places it in a bin in an adjacent compartment. Once all the items of a customer’s order have been entered, a worker places the bin on a conveyor for packaging and delivery.

San Francisco-based Kindred is one of the many startups that sell artificially intelligent robots that aim to grab almost any item quickly and without breakage. Hundreds of thousands of retail workers in the United States are doing this, and Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos said technology is years away from resuming this job. However, retailers can use robots to select narrower product sets.

Kindred Chakarov said, “Our robotic systems never tire. They never take breaks.”

Kindred and Gap say they aim for technology to complement workers, not to replace them. In its warehouses, Gap is always looking for new recruits – and potentially new machines.

“Should we be doing more?” Kuntz asked. “How fast can a Vampire build these machines?”

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