Consumer markets are pivoting sharply towards the e-commerce space, and retailers who aren’t already on board with innovative solutions to keep up with the pace of change can no longer afford to wait.
The pandemic has seen demand for rapid order fulfilment steadily rising as consumers are turning to suppliers who can provide their goods now – not two days from now, nor next week. While the field of competition is becoming increasingly global, fast and accurate processing is already critical to the long-term survival of any retail business.
One company that has been helping supply chain operators improve space efficiency, productivity, speed and accuracy for more than 200 years is Dematic. Through its regional base in Singapore, the firm’s core business provides a range of automated solutions that improve the process of order fulfilment.
“Our business has certainly evolved and diversified,” says Dematic Asia’s senior director of integrated systems Michael Bradshaw. “Today we’re helping our customers address many of the challenges around order fulfilment, storage and sortation with the application of automation combined with intelligent software. Many of our customers have gone from replenishing a relatively small number of stores in large quantities each week to now having to fulfil thousands of online orders a day, each for just one or two items delivered often on the same day and in very tight time slots. This has called for new ways of doing things.”
“We’ve led the way with being first to market in the region for a number of logistics automation technologies and solutions including robotic picking, fully automated mixed case order assembly and mobile automation. And we’re seeing all of these being deployed across a range of supply chains and in a range of applications.”
While many supply chains face common challenges, one sector in particular that Bradshaw notes has recently undergone a significant transformation with the help of automation in the food industry – especially with fresh and frozen products.
“In Asia, there’s now a lot more fresh and frozen food being purchased through organised retail channels as opposed to traditional wet markets,” he notes. “Of course that increased demand has spilled over into e-commerce channels. On the back of that, we’re seeing significant growth in demand for cold chain logistics, and that’s one area where there’s also a lot of opportunities for technology and automation to provide significant benefits. Finding a cost-effective way to get produce to the point of sale or end customer with just that right amount of freshness – but without taking it too far that you end up with waste and spoilage – does present a challenge for our customers. Looking at the meat production industry as an example, we have used automation to help customers reduce handling and staffing, and also to save time. For some of our customers in Australia or New Zealand, that extra time has been enough to help their product reach a larger geographic market radius, which has translated to millions more people they can serve just by saving a few extra days at the production end.”
E-commerce is now a key factor driving innovative changes in the supply chain, with goods often being delivered from logistics facilities to e-commerce customers as individual packages and often with only one or two items inside. The rapid growth and sheer volume of e-commerce fulfilment seen in the market has inevitably meant the adoption of higher levels of automation. Today, automation of the kind formerly deployed only in manufacturing applications is now finding its way into logistics operations, which now feature robotics of many form factors handling a range of tasks, from storage to mixed case palletising to automated picking and packing of individual items.
“A lot of the changes that we are seeing happening during this time of the pandemic probably would have happened anyway; they’ve just happened faster and caught some people by surprise,” says Bradshaw. “The rapid shift to e-commerce is an obvious example. More specific to Covid are some of the changes we are seeing around people.
“The desire to reduce the size of workforces has always been there, but whereas before it was all about reducing operating costs, today it’s become just as much about minimising the dependency on labour – because it may not always be available to show up to work in a lockdown for example, or in countries where you have a high dependency on an imported workforce from overseas. Even if you can find enough workers to match demand, there’s now a need to socially distance them and minimise touches on products to avoid potential contamination. Automation really supports addressing all of these issues.”