By James McKew

The retail landscape has transformed dramatically from the continuous digitalisation of the industry, exacerbated by the onslaught of the pandemic. Consumers in the Asia Pacific are now increasingly connected digitally with a shift in their buying habits, and are now more at ease clicking on smartphones to purchase all manners of products, than to visit offline shops and malls.

Statista reported more than a 20 percent rise of the average online spending in the Asia Pacific from 2019 to 2020. The rise in multiple marketplaces in Asia Pacific such as JD, Taobao, Lazada, Tokopedia and Shopee are testimony to this flourishing trend in retail and e-commerce.

With the evolution of retail emerged new opportunities in related industries, such as a growing pie of warehouses, distribution centres (DCs), and fulfilment centres (FCs), and in turn, these industries seeking productivity and automation capabilities.

The rise of the machines
For years, DCs and FCs were resistant to adopting robots in warehousing despite embracing many other technologies. Some of these companies were concerned about the perceived inflexibility, safety, investment burdens of adopting industrial robots into their workflow.

However, the coming of age of collaborative robotics alleviated the shortcomings of traditional industrial robots. Now, collaborative robots (cobots) are ideal for repetitive tasks in DCs and FCs that require high accuracy to reduce costly errors or returns, while freeing human workers to take care of other upstream and downstream processes. When dealing with dull and repetitive tasks, human workers can become fatigued and lose their concentration. Unlike human workers, cobots are capable of automating operations around the clock and significantly reduce human errors. As such, cobots are best suited for many supply chain environments, such as “pick and place” processes, relieving the burden on the human workforce.

Unlike traditional industrial robots that required safety fencing and operating footprint, cobots can easily work alongside human workers with no safety fencing required (upon risk assessment). Cobots can also be easily deployed, programmed, and guided, to adapt to many repetitive tasks in the supply chain environment.

More automation upside for supply chain
The ongoing pandemic has brought about a drastic shift in the e-commerce sector and consumerism. With an increasing need to improve product quality output and speed of routine processes in the supply chain industry, more companies like DCL Logistics are expected to embrace automation.

In a recent market research report, Global Market Estimates (GME) highlighted a forecasted value of more than 40.5 percent CAGR growth in the Supply Chain Collaborative Robots Market from 2021 to 2026. According to GME, packaging and palletising will maintain a large share of cobot adoption over the next few years.

As the e-commerce sector continues to foster and consumer demands establishing new standards, cobots have presented an optimistic fringe for the retail industry. With the added value to human workers, top supply chain executives are aggressively ramping up collaborative automation in their facilities. Distribution centres and fulfilment centres looking to adapt to accelerated market demands, would have to scale up their operations with automation, increasing the speed of order fulfilment, while retaining their talent pool in order to etch deep and stay relevant in the competitive market.

James McKew is Regional Director Asia-Pacific at Universal Robots


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