Webinar recap: How one 3PL tripled its pick rates with cobots

Rohma Abbas Last Updated: January 18th, 2020

Good data is the cornerstone of any solid business case. In our recent webinar, “Building the Business Case for Cobots: The ACT Fulfillment Story” we aimed to provide you with just that—good data from expert sources who have crunched the numbers, deployed the robots and benefitted from the results. We’re talking about panelists John Santagate, Research Director at IDC and Ryan Cox, Industrial Engineer at ACT Fulfillment, who lent us their research and project implementation insights for this 45-minute session.


Don’t have time to watch the full webinar? Not to worry. Here are the key takeaways:

Meet ACT Fulfillment and IDC Community

ACT Fulfillment is a California-based third-party logistics provider founded in 1994 in 15,000 square feet and has grown to 1.4 million square feet. ACT Fulfillment employs 600 people and services wholesale, retail and ecommerce fulfillment for major fashion brands. ACT also provides value added services for its customers.

ACT’s Ryan Cox led the project to implement 6 River Systems collaborative robots in a 40,000 square foot picking area dedicated to shoe fulfillment for retail replenishment.

John Santagate is a Research Director at IDC responsible for the service robotics market.  Santagate’s core research coverage includes market trends and forecasts for service robotics, business process evolution through the use of service robots, and the integration of robotics into business processes and business IT architecture.

Collaborative robots are getting more popular

According to Santagate’s research, over 90% of organizations polled by his firm, IDC, indicate they have some plans for deploying robotics in the near term, with 21% actively piloting technology. Most deployments result in double-digit improvement across productivity, efficiency and operating capacity.

The triggers that led ACT to cobots

In ACT’s case, a couple of factors piqued the company’s interest in collaborative robots:

Capacity limits. In 2017, ACT wasn’t able to fulfill enough volume for its retail replenishment and ecommerce operations, and began looking for solutions to speed up production.

Process snags. ACT’s workflow prior to implementing cobots was labor intensive, with bulk pick and resorting and resegregating into order level distribution at packout. This process was very labor intensive, averaging at 25 units per hour pick to ship, according to Cox.

High turnover in tight labor market. ACT faced what many warehouses face today—they struggled to keep staff. They turned temps 5 to 7 times a year, and it took weeks to train people to do bulk pool and to do the sort and segregation.

Why ACT chose collaborative robots

ACT Fulfillment worked with a consultant to explore its automation options. The team reviewed sortation systems, but the price tag started at $5 million. In the end, collaborative robots were the most competitive alternative to traditional automation. The ACT team estimated a 6 River Systems solution could be achieved at a fraction of the cost of the sortation system.

A few other features cemented ACT’s choice in cobots:

Quicker implementation

With traditional automation, ACT was looking at a 6-12 month lead time for project completion. With 6 River Systems, it was two months. “These barriers, lead time and cost stopped us previously in progressing with automation,” Cox remarked.

A more flexible way to automate

ACT looked into other robotics and traditional solutions providers, but they required a lot of hardware and equipment upgrades to ACT’s current facility. That didn’t work for ACT. “We wanted to streamline the process with 6RS and remove as many steps as possible,” Cox said.

Solution and results

ACT Fulfillment started with 10 collaborative robots from 6 River Systems, called “Chucks.” These 10 cobots supported 10,000 units a day, with 7 pickers and 2 shifts. ACT onboarded the solution and hit target rates within 6 weeks. The team achieved total ROI in 5 months.

After installing the Chucks, ACT witnessed a number of business and operational improvements:

Tripled pick rates and decreased walking with pick path optimization. Overall ACT sped up processing by greater than 3X, from 25 UPH to 85 UPH in-aisle picking and 72 UPH in the whole process. To reduce in-aisle walking ACT looked at 6 River Systems’ cartonization capabilities to induct many units and cartonize based on pick paths. The ACT team reduced in-aisle walking by 50% with 6 River Systems’ pick path optimization.

Simplified the entire picking process. With 6RS, ACT moved to cart pick instead of bulk pool, sort and segregate. In bulk pool, there is a double pick. With cartonization in-system, the solution allowed ACT to remove the double-pick. “We wanted to streamline process with 6RS and remove as many steps as possible,” Cox said.

Reduced mispicks by 90%. ACT went from a manual pick process to one that involves hands-free scanning on the robot. Doing this increased order accuracy dramatically.

Modified solution to fit unique needs. ACT was able to work with 6RS to install a third shelf onto the robot and added magnets to reduce the amount of time it took to apply shelf labels. Each shelf is an order in ACT’s operation, and they have a carton label on each shelf. They used magnets to hold labels on CHK shelf. “We worked hand in hand with 6RS to build 3 level and fine tune org process and operations flow through our building,” Cox said.

Made employees happier. By implementing collaborative robots, ACT saw worker productivity — and employee morale — increase. “The biggest fear we had around automation was maintaining morale, and we positioned the Chucks as a tool that cohabitate with pickers,” Cox said. “It’s not replacing or changing. It’s making it easier to allow us to do our job.”

The future of collaborative mobile robots

Santagate said IDC predicts a bright future for commercial sector mobile robots. Here’s the three-year outlook:

Twenty-five percent of mobile robotic deployments will include the ability to add on modular components enabling multiple uses on the same mobile platform, thus delivering up to 30% productivity and efficiency gains

Thirty percent of the top 100 retailers will be using or piloting robots within the ship-from-store fulfillment process, helping reduce the cost of ship-from-store orders by up to 20%

Forty-five percent of mobile robotic deployments will be by way of robot as a service, providing facilities with the ability to rapidly scale up and down during periods of demand volatility and enabling robotic deployments to shift from capex to opex

View the slides


For more information on collaborative robots in action, check out the 6 River Systems customers page.