Ecommerce boom driving new robot helpers

The pandemic has hastened the move online for retail and grocers. Robotics development is shifting into gear to meet the demand.

fetch-pallettransport1500-5.jpg

Dave Lin

There's a new robot available to move pallets around fulfillment warehouses. That may not sound sexy, but the robot is symptomatic of ramped up development in the automation sector to meet demand created by ecommerce pressure.

The robot from Fetch Robotics is called (a bit uninspiringly) PalletTransport1500, and its a workhorse of an autonomous mobile forklift designed to ferry cargo of up to 2504 pounds around warehouses, something that happens hundreds of times per day in busy ecommerce fulfillment centers. The robot utilizes warehouse execution system software by a firm called Honeywell Intelligrated to go about its autonomous business.

And business is booming for automation providers targeting ecommerce and contactless delivery. Distribution centers are slammed with the pandemic-related ecommerce boom. The sector saw sales grow more than 30% in 2020, much steeper growth than could have been imagined at the close of 2019.

"Even the most well-managed distribution centers are struggling to keep up with the ongoing growth of e-commerce, which is putting tremendous stress on facilities and warehouse associates to move goods in and out of facilities at record speed," explains Fetch Chief Product Officer Stefan Nusser. "By combining Fetch's new PalletTransport1500 with Honeywell Intelligrated's Momentum WES, distribution and fulfillment centers will now be able to orchestrate every aspect of automated warehouse execution for maximum facility efficiency and safety."

The demand surge comes just as many ecommerce suppliers are acclimating to next-day fulfillment, a trend driven almost entirely by Amazon. With the pandemic introducing mew restrictions on work environments and ravaging workforces with illness, automation is viewed as a crucial relief valve.

"To compete in the fast-paced, high-stakes world of e-commerce, modern distribution and fulfillment center operations are introducing increasing levels of automation. Too often these automated systems operate independently, performing very discrete tasks and processes," says Thomas Evans, CTO of Honeywell Robotics. "This collaboration with Fetch to have a turnkey solution with Momentum gives those in the e-commerce industry a competitive advantage that will optimize productivity, increase operational safety, and provide significant return on investment."

In addition to reducing the need to hire to keep up, automated mobile robots, which have an excellent safety track record, have the benefit of potentially reducing workplace accidents. According to OSHA, there are 61,800 accidents involving forklifts in the U.S. each year, a staggering figure. 

Fetch's relationship with Honeywell is also symptomatic of larger coupling in the sector as one-time startups come of age and begin to sell themselves, acquire, or strategically partner in a trend of increasing consolidation around the maturing industry. Fetch's latest robot builds on an ongoing partnership with Honeywell, which combines Honeywell's software with Fetch's existing suite of AMRs to support autonomous workflows for smaller payloads.