Zalando predicts open interfaces will be key for automation
06 February 2019
The head of logistics at pure-play fashion retailer Zalando has identified open interfaces between solutions as the key step-change to much deeper and broader take-up of automated systems.
Carl-Friedrich zu Knyphausen, head of logistics development, Zalando spoke at the opening of the retailer’s huge new logistics centre in Stockholm (see box).
He says: “We need open interfaces that allow data to be shared with other systems quickly. This allows for short integration times into existing processes. There is currently a lack of flexible solutions that can be implemented quickly. It would be ideal to be able to transport and use a robot from one warehouse to another without any problems. We need a larger number of possible applications for automation, which not only covers one area in intralogistics, but can be used for different tasks where required.”
Zalando sees great potential in automation platform software that enables open systems and interfaces. This means that the software can make its data available for other applications and it can, for example, be used by another system to steer a robot.
Space age warehouse
Zalando and partner Ingram Micro have opened a fulfillment centre near Stockholm, Sweden.
It is equipped with the most advanced automation technology in Zalando’s portfolio. Combined with its strategic geographical location, the approximately 30,000 sq m fulfillment centre aims to cut lead times in half for Nordic customers.
Around 50 robots, known as GreyOrange butlers, have been deployed. The autonomous mobile robots carry goods-to-person and complement the manual work of the around 500 employees at the site.
Automation in the fulfillment centre is focused on outbound processes, which ensure faster delivery to the customers. The automation system adapts to changing inventory profiles, demand patterns, and peaks; improving efficiency and ergonomics for the employees.
“We are talking here about a higher-level operating system; in the remotest sense comparable to Android as a smartphone operating system,” explains Carl-Friedrich. “As with Android, where each app provides special functions, different robot systems will call services via the automation platform software and thus execute orders. Of course, this presupposes that the manufacturers of robots also support open systems; I still see a lot of catching up to do here.”
For example, we could imagine a transport robot calling up a "navigation service" that is provided centrally by the operating system. The shared data allows it to drive through the warehouse to supply the packing tables with packaging material.
“New warehouses will have a higher degree of automation with more flexible structures that use space more efficiently, for example with height. All in all, I think we are just at the beginning of an exciting journey,” says Carl-Friedrich.
Even at a time when it is becoming increasingly difficult to find enough workers, retailers must continue to ensure that customers receive their orders with the greatest possible convenience. Zalando has therefore been investing in automation since the beginning of its logistics activities.
“I believe in the combination of people and automation in everyday work. Monotonous activities can be supported or taken over by robots, but when it comes to more complex tasks or spontaneous changes in the process flow, artificial intelligence doesn’t quite suffice,” says Carl-Friedrich.
“The cooperation of technologies and employees is a flowing process. For example, automated conveyor technology brings goods to the sorting and packing workstations or to the truck, where they are loaded by employees. Another example is the bag sorter machine, which we use to assign articles to orders. The bag sorter transports the articles from a storage area to the employee's workstation, sorted and ready, and the employee can remove the articles from the bags and process them without bending them. This saves time and is more ergonomic for the employee.”