Q&A: Boxed co-founder talks warehouse efficiency—via robotic automation
Boxed is testing a new initiative to drive warehouse efficiency using automated driverless carts.
The e-retailer — which sells everyday essentials in bulk form at a discount — operates warehouses in Union (New Jersey), Dallas, Las Vegas, and Atlanta. Warehouse associates fulfill and ship orders that arrive on customers’ doorsteps within two days or less. However, the Union facility is the company’s only fully automated distribution center. Boxed’s other three warehouses support predominantly manual, time-consuming operations.
In a move to automate its picking and packing operations at the manual centers, Boxed has developed — and is testing — an autonomous guided vehicle (AGV) that is able to pick up and transport orders through its facilities. And early indications are that effort is paying off with efficiency gains and improved picking rates.
Boxed’s co-founder and CTO William Fong shared his thoughts about the initiative — and expectations — with Chain Store Age.
CSA: What is Boxed’s interest in robotics?
WF: Union is our one fully automated distribution center, outfitted with a state-of-the-art conveyor system. We want to try to replicate this efficiency at our three manual locations.
Our goal is to reduce costs by 10% and replicate efficiency within 80%. Rather than deploy miles of conveyors, this next iteration of efficiency will stem from robotics-based carts. However, the technology will solve the same issue: getting merchandise to our pickers versus making them walk to the merchandise.
CSA: What was the project’s inspiration?
WF: We are always thinking about how to make internal operations more efficient. Focusing on a solution that could streamline operations across our manual fulfillment centers was a natural extension of this goal.
That’s how we created what we call AGVs — automated guided vehicles. Leveraging our entrepreneurial spirit, the devices leverage software we developed using open source technology, and our robotics team created the hardware.
The AGV features an iPad, and comes to life with a Tesla battery that has between 15-20 hours of run time. Embedded sensors and a camera give it awareness of its surroundings and controls its movement around the warehouse.
CSA: How do they work?
WF: The AGV is programmed with artificial intelligence. It can recognize routes, paths and product labels, and understand physical obstacles. They are programmed to autonomously travel throughout the distribution center, navigate through other humans and carts, and pull over to pick up orders.
Once a customer order is accepted by our e-commerce platform, it is dispatched to our fulfillment software. The software is integrated within the robot and mapping software optimizes the best route for the unit to compile all of the ordered merchandise, and directs the AGV to move forward, backwards or perpendicularly.
Embedded sensors direct the devices to the correct pick zones, and QR code readers identify which pallets to stop at. The sensors also prompt the cart to stop roaming when it encounters a physical obstacle.
Each time the AGV makes a stop on the picking route, an associate in the aisle picks all the requested merchandise. They use the iPad to confirm the merchandise was picked, and the filled cart travels to the pack station where another associate boxes the order and places it on a truck for delivery.
CSA: How long does the picking process take?
WF: It depends on the order — and whether they are fulfilling more than one order. However, the AGV prototype is currently performing at a rate that we estimate has increased productivity by 80%.
CSA: How many AGVs are you currently using?
WF: Currently, we are using one prototype for order simulations in Union. This is helping us prepare to launch our first units in our Dallas warehouse by the end of the year, and we will scale up from there. At full deployment, we expect to be using between 30 and 40 devices in Dallas.
Our goal is to deploy an average of 40 AGVs in each manual distribution center, give or take, depending on the need in each location.
CSA: What is the long term goal?
WF: Our long-term vision is to extend the AGVs to other operations that can minimize walking for our associates. This could include replenishment, transportation of supplies, and working alongside humans to fulfill other roles in the warehouse. Overall, we believe that as the AGVs streamline operations, they will continue to decrease the distance that our associates need to walk.
This story is amazing!
Camper, Westfield World Trade Center, New York
Spanish footwear brand Camper stays true to its tradition of creating unique store experiences at each of its locations at its new outpost in Manhattan.
The 650-sq.-ft. store has a minimalist look, and features hardwood oak plank flooring with a satin finish. Oversized photo images provide a bold backdrop for product displays. The store is designed based on the idea of diorama-like exhibits, in which shoes serve as the focal artifacts. Seven-ft.-high “diorama” merchandise display cabinets are installed along three perimeter walls of the space. The cabinets consist of boxes of varying dimensions, designed to showcase either individual pairs of shoes or small collections. The boxes feature LED strips and replaceable photo backgrounds that reflect changing seasons and inspirations for each shoe design.
New York City-based design from Montroy Andersen DeMarco (MADGI) collaborated on the project with Studio Camper, the brand’s in-house store design team.
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Go Green, Not Red, this Holiday Season
The holiday shopping season is upon us. For retailers, these last three months of the year signify a marathon of competitive sales strategies to increase foot traffic and maximize profits.
According to the National Retail Federation, the holiday season can represent as much as 30% of annual sales. To adapt to shifting consumer trends and meet peak season demands, stores plan to increase both hours of operation and staff onsite.
Retailers such as Gap and Target have already scheduled hiring events across stores nationwide. In 2016, seasonal retail employment increased by 641,000 from October through December to support extended store hours. Many stores even stay open non-stop for the last few days before the holiday.
By focusing on sales strategies to capture the largest share of consumers, retailers often overlook the costs required to do so — because as store hours and foot traffic increase across retail sites, so do waste volumes and energy consumption.
Retailers spend over $21 billion per year on energy, a large portion of which hits during peak shopping season — and over $3 billion of these expenditures could be avoided through efficiency measures.
By planning early and creating a pre-holiday checklist to manage these cost areas, retailers can ensure a happy holiday season for businesses and consumers alike. Retailers can follow the following five strategies to minimize energy and waste costs.
1. Big data brings big savings. Before the holiday season begins, retailers should have established benchmarks for both energy usage and waste volumes to efficiently adjust for increases. Utilities can help retailers assess energy usage and provide recommendations for low cost efficiency measures and connected equipment.
As more equipment, including thermostats, lighting controls and machine sensors, come online and provide constant streams of data, retailers gain a more transparent view of energy usage and opportunities for significant reductions.
Additionally, for waste, retailers who have their own, individual waste services should be familiar with typical waste volumes to prepare for increases. If dumpsters are regularly filled pre-holidays, these retailers should temporarily increase service levels with their haulers before the holidays to avoid unsightly pileups and extra fines.
2. Turn that thermometer down. Retailers go out of their way to accommodate customers and create an optimal environment to make the hectic shopping experience a little more enjoyable. Busy shoppers, however, are unlikely to notice minimal heating or cooling changes that bring in big savings. Turning the thermostat down or up by just one degree across various sites can save millions of dollars.
If you have a control system, ensure that your set-points and schedules are adjusted to reflect the holiday hours. Relying on staff at each location to adjust them leaves room for error and you run the risk of having your assets on 24×7.
3. Go green on holiday displays. With increasing competition to stage elaborate window displays, retailers often underestimate the costs and requirements of additional plug loads to power holiday lighting and special effects around the clock. To mitigate the stress on existing power sources within stores, retailers should seek out energy efficient power products from online marketplaces run by utilities and local suppliers.
4. Maintenance comes first. Retailers should make sure all assets – lighting controls, heating and cooling systems, or refrigeration – are running optimally prior to peak season. Ensuring planned maintenance is completed and that all assets are commissioned correctly will reduce the chance for unplanned downtime on critical operational assets. Having an air handling unit with a damper stuck open wastes energy and is an unnecessary distraction for store managers during the most critical time of year.
5. Embrace waste year-round. Most of retail waste is recyclable. For many retailers, the holidays correspond to moving more products, creating more packaging and consequently increasing waste volumes. This influx of waste is accompanied by longer hours and more people, which means less time and space to collect it. The biggest mistake retailers make is assuming that their recycling programs are functioning well and that employees are separating materials properly. Many companies start a waste or recycling program, train their employees once, and never touch it again. But, these programs need constant attention.
Creating well-founded recycling and waste reduction programs year-round is the foundation to a greener holiday. This includes proper bin placement, ongoing employee training and clear signage for disposal locations within the store to enable new employees, and distracted employees, to maintain existing recycling programs.
From resetting HVAC controls to adjusting waste and recycling services to account for more inventory, retailers can better prepare for their busiest season through data and best practices. Last year, holiday retail sales increased 4%in 2015 to $658.3 billion. To ensure strong profits this year, retailers must not only adapt to consumer demands, but also increase their efforts to reduce energy costs, improve waste programs and be more sustainable. This will decrease overhead and ensure a greener and more profitable holiday season.
Jamie Daubenspeck is director of facility technology, Ecova and Kristin Kinder is manager of waste solutions, Ecova.
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