Meet the Robots That Sort Your E-commerce Packages

Highlights
  • Automation is steadily being adopted by e-commerce companies
  • Main focus to increase efficiency and throughput
  • GreyOrange is one of the companies offering automation

One of the ways in which e-commerce changed retail in India was creating demand for fast and reliable logistics at scale. Companies like Flipkart, Amazon, and others, are moving thousands of packages through their warehouses every single day, and meeting this demand is a tall order. Enter automation.

GreyOrange, an Indian AI and robotics company based in Delhi NCR, is one of the few Indian companies that has been building tools that can make warehouses much more efficient. Gadgets 360 visited a demo-zone that the company has created in Gurugram, where one of its Butler robots was carrying an entire shelf of products that a human worker could then take a product out from.

In the warehouse, human pickers are working with Butler robots to get the products out of the door for delivery. By themselves, each person can pick between 100 and 150 products in an hour, having to go back and forth to the shelves each time. With the Butler robot - which can bring the relevant stacks to the human picker - the rate goes up to 400 to 500 items per hour, the company explained.

GreyOrange designs, manufactures, and deploys robotics for automation at warehouses, distribution and fulfilment centres, with clients such as Flipkart, Myntra, Jabong, and DTDC, among others. "Our main focus is to make humans more efficient by using robots," says Akash Gupta, co-founder and CTO, GreyOrange. According to Gupta, the overall electronics, control systems, and many of the mechanical parts are designed in-house, while motors and other basic parts are purchased.

We wondered whether the humans can be entirely replaced in warehouses with robots like the Butler, but Gupta stresses that the robots are designed to work with humans, and not to replace us. "With consumer demand increasing, the warehouses need to become more intelligent," says Gupta.

"We have been very focused towards how we make human being super effective inside the warehouses. We have seen multiple areas where there are lot of activities that are not very valuable to human beings," he explains. "[such as] walking around 10 to 12 kilometres in a day, or sorting packets, and other things like that involved decent amount of walking, so we try to make sure that we remove that non-value add."

greyorange butler greyorange

When deployed, the robots are on a dual-communication channel with a central system. There is a primary and secondary communication channel. Primarily, they are connected with Wi-Fi, and there's a separate proprietary RF secondary channel that's mostly used as a backup if at any point of time Wi-Fi has latencies or there is disconnection. Gupta says that this fallback means there is always a way to send a command to a bot, so if you need to send an instruction very quickly, then the secondary channel could be used in emergency.

Robots in a warehouse setup are pretty much autonomous which means they have to understand the surroundings, apart from other factors. "There are multiple kinds of sensors to sense the environment, location, speed, temperature, and their own battery system," a GreyOrange executive explains. "They are completely autonomous hence needed to be fitted with all kinds of sensors."

GreyOrange offers two types of robots, the Sorter and the Butler. The Sorter is a high-speed sorting system that profiles and routes packages based on customisable logic, helping companies with multiple supply chains. GreyOrange claimed that the Sorter can sort up to 6,000 packets an hour for warehouses.

It does this by tracking both the volume and the weight of a package. This combination is good enough to be able to tell, for example, a bar of soap from a mobile phone. The Butler, on the other hand, is a storage and retrieval robot, Gupta explains. The robot is based on "goods-to-man" process, and focuses on reducing the walking and search job done by humans.

In the GreyOrange facility, we watched the Butler identify the correct shelves, which had the required products, and then carry them over to the humans at the end of the line. Sensors that weighed and measured products ensure that the line is moving correctly.

greyorange sorter greyorange

On the other hand, picking up individual items and putting them for delivery, quality check, and packaging are all still being carried out by humans. "There's still a fair part of it which is human including the quality check," says Gupta. "For quality check systems there are still humans involved, the picking process is still requires human guidance, and in some of the cases packaging process is also human. For example, if you're packaging a book or any simple products you can get it done automatically. But for more complex products packaging you need human involvement."

"It's just that you need little more intelligence to do that but I think other than those processes, ensuring that you're using the automation system in the right way to get the right amount of throughput is important," Gupta adds.

That being said, automation is a costly affair, and it requires a big investment. "It depends upon the area you want to automate for throughput you want to achieve," says Gupta. "Normally, it's tough to come up with a value. Again one thing we need to understand is in the core of the company we develop products to a customer it always goes in the form of solution."

Warehouses can be as big as 400,000 to 500,000 square feet, but some are as small as 30,000 square feet. The cost involved in automation depends on the area what a company is trying to automate and the throughput they are trying to achieve, says Gupta.

As a result, the time of recovery for a company that invests in automation also depends on the working scale. The typical return of the investment is usually around 18 months of operation, the company adds, admitting that there have been cases where it took almost four to five years to recover the money, though those were outliers. A GreyOrange executive also explains that the life of the system would be 10 to 15 years, and added that actual savings start happening from the third year.

With an increase in consumer demands and companies like Amazon strengthening operations in India, we can expect automation to play major role. At the same time, while robots may be making things easier for companies, humans are still relevant and important in overall chain. "Humans will always be required though robots just make the ecosystem much more sorted," Gupta says, pun clearly intended.

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