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Get a grip of the future

11 March 2022

We spoke to GXO vice president of operations Phil Shaw to get his take on the growing role of technology in logistics.

IT BECAME clear from the discussion that the most exciting development was, not one single technological breakthrough, but rather the maturation at the same time of several technological trends.

As Phil explains: “I see gripping tech as a major development for the near future and when you delve into that, it becomes clear it is about several things.

“The classic gripper application in an automated production line is very predictable and repeatable, the robots know exactly what they will be doing, time and time again.

“The warehouse environment on the other hand deals with hundreds of thousands of SKUs and we need the gripper to ‘see’ what is in the tote, even without sight of the barcode and adapt to its qualities, pick it, apply the right grip and move it to the correct place. The ability to do this is a revolutionary change. The combination of the mechanical arm, with AI, with gripper, and with visual technology, is very significant.”

“The warehouse environment on the other hand deals with hundreds of thousands of SKUs and we need the gripper to ‘see’ what is in the tote, even without sight of the barcode and adapt to its qualities, pick it, apply the right grip and move it to the correct place.”

While this is a big change for the near future, Phil was equally enthusiastic about the impact of pocket sorters on the effectiveness of operations.

“Pocket sorters have been very useful, in terms of the enhancement and use of dynamic buffers, and the ability to pick from dynamic stock at different times, from different places in the warehouses and bring items together in one order, and place them at the packing bench to be consolidated and sent out. That is a great development, which we are capitalising on and deploying more.”

GXO has [while part of XPO and since its spin-off] had a number of years of very rapid growth.

Phil explains: “We have achieved this growth largely though the application of automation and technology, as a first mover and through offering benefits to customers in terms of service and efficiency. It’s a virtuous circle, it puts you in a good position to sell more, the benefits are commercial as well as operational.”

Phil has been with the business since 2008, and since GXO spun off, has been working on technology, innovation, and continuous improvement. “We want to bring all of this into a common category to offer the benefits to customers globally,” Phil explains.

SMART

A key element of GXO’s innovation is the SMART labour management tool, which is an implicit acknowledgment that automation does not operate independently of people. The workforce is very much a key element in the equation.

Phil says: “SMART aligns our volumes with the labour we have. We break the warehouse down by process, then measure this in terms of activity, to understand productivity and therefore are in the best position to predictably match coming workload with resource. The key word is predictability.”

GXO is developing the tool more into forecasting and planning, focusing not just on the now and near future, but also bringing in AI to analyse previous forecasts, variances and predictability of variances, to get a fuller picture.

Lastly, I asked Phil how GXO evaluates potential technology partners. “We work with partners to evaluate the concept and the product. The concept could be good but the product could fail. It has to be robust. The management team has to be adept and accommodate our wants. And they have to be able to scale,” says Phil.

“Furthermore, we are looking for a maintenance and development relationship, not a commodity. We need a service that we can incorporate as part of our proposition as a service.”

For more information, visit www.gxo.com

 
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