by Arun Shankar

UAE’s RoboStores targets warehouse automation and rapid deliveries

Oct 19, 2021
RoboticsTransportation and Logistics Industry

By deploying an automated robot warehouse stacking and retrieval system, and integrating its ERP with business intelligence and visualization, RoboStores can now replicate this model to other countries.

aziz al harbi coo robostores
Credit: Aziz Al Harbi

Like most industries, the logistics and distribution business is getting disrupted by digital technologies. The continuous, customer-driven standoff between brick and mortar stores and online retail has made e-commerce providers promise shorter and shorter delivery times and better and better first-time fulfilment deliveries.

A key regional player in this business, Dubai-based RoboStores, has adopted a mechanical robot system for picking and packing of items, as well as a backend intelligence system to guide merchandise and branding campaign spending.

“Customers now want their items as fast as possible,” says Aziz Al Harbi, chief operating officer at RoboStores, “First it was a few days, then next day, then 24 hours, then 12 hours and now 4 hours and even 2 hours.”

For logistics and shipping players like RoboStores, the way to meet customer expectations in the long term, without increasing percentage of failed deliveries or returns, is to leverage built-in automated processes and operations.

Warehouse automation for global supply chain

Today, RoboStores is an automated warehousing and fulfilment center that operates a global supply chain to serve retail customers. The business model of RoboStores is to offer services to two distinct parts of the market.

Digital start-ups, especially those focused on e-commerce, would like to outsource much of their logistical requirements. For such businesses, RoboStores, offers import management, customs clearance, VAT, storage, fulfilment and last- mile deliveries. For larger global organizations targeting cash rich GCC (Gulf Cooperation Council) markets with branded products, Robostores provides similar services including guidance on  ship to the Gulf region.

As fulfilment centres such as RoboStores increase the number of customers they are servicing, the primary challenge becomes management of the growing volume of orders, with successful delivery and without allowing percentage of returns to increase. A surge in customer orders places an increased amount of pressure on floor operators to maintain the same level of speed and accuracy in the picking process.

“The volume of orders is the bottleneck and nobody can cope without technology,” Al Harbi says. In the online world, sending the wrong shipment to a customer, followed by a process of returns and refunds can make or break the business. “A bad experience means they are not coming back,” he stresses.

Tech needed to speed delivery time

Businesses such as RoboStores need seamless processes to pack as fast as possible and deliver as fast as possible to the customer. Technology has to be used to create the fastest delivery time while building a network of last-mile deliveries through partnerships and utilization of a company’s own fleet.

pascal fempel

Pascal Fempel is head of software sales and consulting, EMEA, at Swisslog.

To meet these objectives, RoboStores worked with global logistics solutions vendor Swisslog, selecting their AutoStore warehousing, robotic stacking and retrieval system. AutoStore is a scalable automated warehouse management system that integrates with Swisslog’s SynQ, Synchronized Intelligence platform.

“For RoboStores, it was important in addition to the standard SynQ for AutoStore software, that the system was able to handle express orders. For this purpose, a customized functionality was implemented by Swisslog’s software team,” says Pascal Fempel, head of software sales and consulting for EMEA (Europe, Middle East, and Africa) at Swisslog.

Swisslog’s SynQ system was integrated with RoboStore’s BMR in-house ERP system. “Our internal ERP application is connected to the Swisslog application through API,” adds Al Harbi.

The complete internal application stack includes the Shopify and WooCommerce e-commerce software integrated through APIs; the BMR ERP Application running on Oracle Database; and Rackspace Cloud running on Windows Server.

Since there was a customized functionality embedded inside the SynQ version meant for RoboStore, the integration was tested remotely through Swisslog’s Buchs head office. Once the factory acceptance tests were passed at Buchs, detailed remote communication tests were done between SynQ and Robostore’s host system.

Subsequent to this, local onsite implementation was initiated at RoboStores in Dubai in 2018 and installation was completed in eight months. Additional set up and testing took another 12 months. Finally, according to Al Harbi, RoboStores started commercially using AutoStore’s end-to-end warehouse solution, from January 2020.

The AutoStore warehouse system comprises delivery robots and storage bins to process small parts orders. It is designed to provide optimal use of available space with its approach to stacking bins and storage of multiple SKUs in a single bin.

bins moving in x y direction

Bins at work on top of the Autostore stacks.

The AutoStore solution from Swisslog is like a giant collection of bins placed on top of each other. These columns of bins can be repeated or scaled along the X and Y axis based on the available area of the warehouse, while the maximum height of the fully stacked column is 16 bins.

In addition, each of the 16 bins that are stacked and retrieved vertically, can be subdivided internally to store SKUs and sub-SKUs. The maximum time it takes to retrieve a bin is 3.5 minutes when it is at the bottom of the column or number 16, and more than one robot can be automatically assigned by Swisslog’s SynQ to assist in the retrieval process.

Automated warehouse deploys delivery robots

Constructed on the top of this matrix of bins is a set of rails and a family of mechanical robots. The purpose of these mechanical robots is to travel on top of the rails, only in an X and Y direction. Once positioned above a column of bins, the mechanical robot has a set of hoists to lift out the bin and move it to another location or to lower it down to a picking operator, at a predefined position.

Once the picking operator has retrieved the SKU from the bin, the mechanical robot automatically raises the bin and replaces it in another stacking column. Those bins with SKUs most in demand tend to get stacked on the top of the columns, while those bins with SKUs less in demand will move to the lower levels of these columns. This automatically reduces the picking time for picking SKUs from the bins.

Each of the mechanical robots that run on the top of the storage array has a gridline sensor located near the wheels. As the mechanical robot travels across the rails in the X and Y directions, its location is tracked through wireless and communicated to Swisslog’s SynQ application in real time. SynQ is responsible for managing the overall traffic of the robots.

Other solutions in use by RoboStores that are integrated with Swisslog’s SynQ are the Pick-by-Light system, which guides the picking and packing operators at the various stations, and RFID for verification of SKUs while picking and packing into bins and sub-bins.

Managing warehouse automation with SynQ

SynQ is based on modern Java Enterprise technology. It’s approach to warehouse management integrates insights, optimization, agility for operations. It is designed to synchronize automated and manual warehouse equipment.

SynQ includes base software applications, such as those required for managing inventory or connecting to a host system, testing processes, and quality standards. The system also integrates typical features such as warehouse management, warehouse execution, warehouse control, manufacturing execution system, material flow, automation control systems, synchronization, and intelligence.

Autostore layout

A typical AutoStore layout.

One of the most important capabilities of SynQ is the ability to manage robotic operations in X,Y,Z directions through a 3D visualizer, and provide a single point of control or SPOC. This user interface enhances visualization and control of warehouse operations and machines. 

SynQ can be installed on existing infrastructure or from anywhere in the cloud. It is deployable on Windows or Linux operating systems and supports multiple database systems.

Warehouse automation optimizes costs

The installation of AutoStore and the integration of SynQ with RoboStores’ host BMR ERP took two years and was a significant investment. But break-even has not taken long, points out Al Harbi. With mechanical robots that pick products based on received orders, RoboStores has been able to significantly reduce the overall cost per order. The finished installation now uses four AutoStore standard picking stations, equipped with Swisslog’s Pick by Light system for correct identification and assistance.

“From the point of view of warehouse space, we have saved as much as 75%. With regards to manpower, we only have four human operators now, looking after the products, managing them and their shipment. Had we not invested in the robots and the system, we would have depended on at least 20 people to handle such a capacity,” explains Al Harbi. “At the moment, we are able to handle over 1,500 orders a day.” And four-hour delivery turnaround has become the norm inside urban locations.

From the point of view of productivity, the time taken for the overhead AutoStore mechanical robots to deliver a bin to the picking operator is just 29 seconds. The same task if performed by a human could take at least half an hour, with a chance of human error.

Another benefit of the integration of RoboStores host BMR ERP and SynQ is the ability to integrate with third party suppliers. “AutoStore, combined with their ERP and website has enabled them to make offers to third party clients for picking, storage and shipping,” points out Swisslog’s Fempel.

Swisslog’s SynQ is also able to provide detailed intelligence reports around specific brands, specific items, lead times, and best-selling characteristics. The primary insights are about how to guide customers on spending money on the right products.

RoboStores is now looking at replicating its Dubai model in another city and another country. A prime driver for this’ is the insight that some products do better in different locations. By moving stock to the right location, delivery costs can be reduced as well as delivery times.

In the wake of RoboStore’s initial deployment of warehouse automation and the cost optimisation it achieved, company leaders are moving to build a second fulfilment centre.