E-commerce wholesaler Boxed has developed an autonomous guided vehicle (AGV) that can pick up and transport orders through the company's fulfillment centers, enabling 80% more picks per hour than might be done by human pickers traveling on foot, Boxed told Retail Dive via e-mail.
Boxed plans to use as many as 30 to 40 AGVs per facility by early 2018, Boxed CTO Will Fong said. It’s now testing a single prototype AGV, but plans on making a few more in the coming weeks that will be tested in its Dallas warehouse.
The AGV is outfitted with a ground-power unit Tesla battery and a variety of sensors, including cameras that enable it to autonomously travel. The cart can navigate through a fulfillment center while avoiding humans, as well as other carts.
The AGV’s development took 90 days, and resulted from Boxed’s efforts to replicate the efficiency of conveyer belt automation at a fraction of the cost, Fong said. "Once we saw that creating an AGV was feasible, at the end of July we dedicated a two-person team to it full time," he said.
The project started as one engineer spending about 20% of his time on the project, Fong said. Now, Boxed is putting itself on an aggressive schedule to produce a handful of AGVs, each one named after a member of Wu-Tang Clan, of which Boxed CEO and co-founder Chieh Huang is a fan. (We didn’t ask whether the first one was RZA or Ghostface Killah.)
Initially, the carts will pick up orders and bring product to the packers, as they are doing in the current test. In the long term, however, Boxed is planning to expand the functionality of the AGVs to complete other warehouse tasks wherever they can enhance efficiency. "For example, rather than sending a human to restock a picking zone with paper towels, the AGV could soon be able to recognize the need to replenish the product and complete the task, all without humans needing to get involved," Fong explained.
This is not Boxed’s first automation endeavor. The company made headlines earlier this year by automating its New Jersey fulfillment center, while retaining the employees for other jobs in the center. Of course, Boxed is hardly the only company in the sector that is aggressively leveraging automation and robotics. Amazon has many thousands of robots at work in its fulfillment centers, and has continued to push for the development of new order-picking robots.
Boxed is often compared to Amazon, whether as a company aspiring to challenge Amazon or as a younger version of Amazon focused on bulk shopping via mobile. It still has a long ways to go, but the AGV is a step in the right direction.