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AI-Driven Robotic Systems: Fueling Fulfillment's Future

Steve Johnson, President and COO, Berkshire Grey
Steve Johnson, President and COO, <a href='https://www.berkshiregrey.com/' rel='nofollow' target='_blank' style='color:blue !important'>Berkshire Grey</a>

Steve Johnson, President and COO, Berkshire Grey

2020 has been an unorthodox year for businesses in nearly every industry on the planet — with retail fulfillment being among the most affected.

• Health concerns surrounding COVID-19 have had wide-ranging effects felt not just inside warehouses and distribution centers, but all the way to our neighborhood grocery stores.

• eCommerce sales skyrocketed as many consumers entered lockdown and as non-essential brick-and-mortar stores temporarily shut down (some never to reopen). In late September, Walmart, Target, and Kohl's announced that they would hire an estimated 240,000 employees this holiday season—many of which would be dedicated to fulfilling online orders.

• Unexpected shifts in consumer consumption patterns stress-tested existing fulfillment systems and forced acceleration of omni-channel strategies. For example, Bain has estimated that, as a result of the pandemic, online grocery adoption will speed up by anywhere from two to five years in the U.S. and Western Europe, with big ramifications for industry capacity.

While dealing with all this change, businesses were also challenged to improve workplace safety and efficiencies. 

Throughout, Berkshire Grey’s AI-driven robotic systems for automating fulfillment have proved uniquely suited to solving these challenges. For example: due to volume increases that were 2 to 3 times normal, retail customers who provide essential goods to consumers have doubled their reliance on Berkshire Grey systems in 2020. This has included moving to 24/7 operations and increasing the number of product categories handled by Berkshire Grey systems by more than 40%. 

Fulfillment’s Future is Here Now

Berkshire Grey systems tackle the most difficult, time-consuming problems in fulfillment for retailers, ecommerce, grocery and logistics companies. Our intelligent robotic systems can execute tasks that our competitors can’t: efficient order picking and processing for the tens of millions of different items (SKUs) consumers buy daily.

Today, fulfillment workers remain scarce and turnover high, and public health demands social distancing and fewer people touching products.  Berkshire Grey's intelligent robotic systems can reduce the need for manual labor by as much as 70%, reducing dependence on non-existent labor and avoiding the need to add second (or third) shifts. This also allows warehouse operators to re-assign their skilled workers to more value-added tasks and processes.

Even pre-COVID, Berkshire Grey was leading the way in solutions for omni-channel fulfillment operations, which faced significant challenges meeting demand as distribution centers had to package simultaneously for retail store shelf replenishment, store pickup, and direct-to-consumer deliveries.

Today’s consumers can buy any product we want online and receive it the next day (or sooner). But this is labor-intensive and inefficient for fulfillment operations, which must “pick,” pack, and ship millions of orders every day. Berkshire Grey’s systems use fewer people and process steps, while providing more speed, accuracy and less possibility of item damage. Our “full-stack” systems use a battery of patented hardware, and trade-secret algorithms in computer vision, machine learning, novel sensing, motion planning, grasp planning, and task execution, all running on an AI platform. 

As many of the retail consumption trends that changed so quickly during COVID 19 won’t be reverting, retailers should rethink fulfillment automation now to be ready for peak season 2021— and beyond.

A Full-Stack Solution for Fulfillment

Berkshire Grey’s robotic picking systems for eCommerce are the first to bring a holistic (vs. piece parts) robotics approach to automating product fulfillment. We deliver turnkey solutions that complement customers’ existing operations and workflows.

Berkshire Grey systems automate picking, packing, and sorting for the widest range of item types in diverse settings at speeds with accuracy levels that bring real results to customers including the ability to:

• Handle fragile items without crushing them (tactile sensors combined with AI algorithms).

• Efficiently handle tens of millions of SKUs in multiple form factors.

• Continue operating if the systems come across an unfamiliar item.  Instead of requiring human intervention like other systems, Berkshire Grey systems use prior knowledge gained from related product types to determine how to pick the new items. For example, when a new sauce bottle is presented the system adapts prior knowledge about a shampoo bottle to pick-up the sauce bottle.

• Identify products and packages with our patented HyperScanner™ technology. It incorporates 360-degree vertical scans to detect barcodes and labels on hard-to-read items and packaging. In contrast, other solutions require a human or robot to wave an item by a barcode scanner, which slows down the entire process.

• Continuously self-learn and get more efficient over time while also optimizing where objects are placed in packages going directly to consumers where space is at a premium.

• Transport picked goods to a wide range of locations without dropping anything or colliding with other objects over everything from shuttle systems to mobile robots, depending on the customer’s specific requirements.

Introduced in early 2020, a new Robotics-as-a-Service (RaaS) option reduces upfront capital costs for customers, making AI-driven robotic fulfillment both more affordable and faster to deploy.  New customers in 2020 included 3 of the Fortune 50 and a large retailer in Japan.  In January, VCs invested $263 million in the company, validation of our mission and progress.

Before founding Berkshire Grey in 2013, veteran robotics/AI expert Tom Wagner spent two years looking for a big problem to solve where the technology could make a big difference in industry. Clearly, he saw the future. Today, we— and our customers—are well on our way, with a modern robotics approach to fulfillment automation.

To learn more about Berkshire Grey, visit us at www.berkshiregrey.com.