Tuesday, May 19, 2020

Major Fashion House Turns to Robot Logistics Technology to Speed Throughput

International Distribution Centres to Benefit from Investment
Shipping News Feature

UK – Iconic fashion brand Superdry, which last year turned over £870+ million, has always sorted its 60,000 stock keeping units (SKUs) mainly by manual processes. Now the company has launched a major initiative to roll-out intelligent goods-to-person robotic systems across its international network of regional distribution centres.

A successful pilot project for handling ecommerce returns was conducted in 2018, involving six autonomous Hikrobot carriers at the company’s UK distribution centre in Burton-upon-Trent, a site operated by its logistics service provider, Clipper Logistics. The company says significant benefits have been realised through the introduction of robots. At the Burton-upon-Trent facility put-away of returns have dramatically risen from under 100 units per hour to rates of 300 - 350 per hour. In the UK, Superdry’s ecommerce returns rate is around 25%, however, in Germany and other EU member states, that figure is far higher.

Some 99% of returns can now be processed and re-dispatched within 24 hours, with many being re-dispatched within an hour. Present volumes allow for 180 picks an hour from mixed SKU locations, double that of the previous manual operation, however, with higher volumes, single SKU bins will enable picks of around 300 items per hour, or more when taking multiples from the same bin.

Other benefits from the robotic goods-to-person system include: increased accuracy, reduced cost per pick, no major infrastructure changes, enhanced flexibility and scalability, as well as greater storage density, which has reduced warehouse space requirements. Now 40 more Hikrobot robots will be installed at the Burton facility in an expansion of the existing goods-to-person system.

It is anticipated 60 more will be added later to handle menswear and expectations are for the further deployment of Hikrobot carriers in Belgium and the US, as the project progresses. Gordon Knox, Director of Logistics at Superdry, explains the reasons behind the investment:

“The adoption of robotics has come about through a requirement to cut operating costs and to reduce our reliance on labour. The headcount we needed to attract during peak periods was resulting in us having to adjust our pay structure beyond what we ideally wanted to pay. To increase outbound capacity, it wasn’t just a matter of hiring 10 more pickers, it was a case of ramping up other activities, such as replenishment, to support those additional pickers.”

Interestingly, the use of robots did not feature in Superdry’s initial thinking when it came to the use of automation. A few years ago, faced with an issue of mounting returns from stores, the business considered investing in an automated storage and retrieval system. The project would have required a commitment to heavy equipment being bolted to the floor and so was not seen as being flexible enough for any future changes that may occur in the business. As it happens, it was the right decision, the business model changed and store returns were dramatically reduced.

After a review of the robotic solutions available on the market, Superdry partnered with UK based warehouse solutions provider, Invar, supplier of Hikrobot systems in Europe. Hikrobot is part of one of China’s largest technology companies, making a wide range of intelligent warehousing solutions centred on mobile robot systems.

As Invar is based in the UK, and its software is developed and maintained locally, the company says it is able to respond quickly to any future system requirements, allowing for simple expansion of the solution by plugging-in hardware as needed, without any disruption to the operation. This phased introduction of technology, to match changing business needs, helps smooth capital expenditure. Gordon Knox continued:

“The more we looked at the capability and flexibility of robotic systems the more we could see how they could be used within our operations. So we decided to test the concept. In the Autumn of 2018 we brought in six Hikrobot robots, which we viewed as having just about enough capacity to deal with our UK ecommerce returns, getting them back and ready for resale as quickly as possible.

“As the system involved putting stock away and picking at various velocities and volumes, it was a great test-bed for multiple applications of the system. We found that inventory accuracy was significantly improved and the tests far exceeded our expectations on throughput and productivity.

“The installation of the Invar pick-to-light system and the setting up of the Hikrobot carriers to follow the QR codes all went really well. It has been a real partnership experience working with Invar and Hikrobot, and we’ve certainly benefited from learning about the full capabilities of the robots and the flexibility of the system. The proof of the success of the relationship between Superdry, Invar and Hikrobot is that we have continued to expand the solution and have plans to further roll-out the system to our facility in the US.”