Gap runs on more warehouse robots to resolve virus outages

SAN FRANCISCO (Reuters) – US apparel chain Gap Inc (GPS.N) is accelerating the launch of warehouse robots for ordering online, to limit human contact during the coronavirus pandemic, the company told Reuters.

Gap reached an agreement earlier this year to more than triple the number of robots that select items it uses to 106 in the fall. Then the pandemic hit North America, forcing the company to close all of its stores in the region, including Banana Republic, Old Navy and other brands. Meanwhile, its warehouses faced more orders over the web and fewer employees to fulfill them due to the social distance rules that Gap had implemented.

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"We were unable to have the largest number of people in our distribution centers safely," said Kevin Kuntz, senior vice president of global logistics service at Gap. So he called Kindred AI, the vendor that sells the machines, to ask, "Can you bring them here earlier?"

Supplying parts in time to the two-and-a-half-meter robotic stations was neither simple nor cheap, said Marin Tchakarov, head of operations at Kindred. But the venture-backed startup managed to deploy 10 of them at the Gap warehouse near Nashville, Tennessee and 20 near Columbus, Ohio, with plans to complete deployment at four of Gap's five U.S. facilities by July, months ahead of schedule, he said. .

Each machine handles the work normally performed by four people, said Kuntz. Neither the agreement to triple the number of robots, nor the facilities shipped, were previously reported.

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The news illustrates how the pandemic can accelerate automation in the retail sector. Companies like Gap and Amazon.com Inc (AMZN.O) have long used these systems for various tasks, such as moving items around the warehouse floors. Several new technologies are able to supplant some of the cash, box packaging and item selection functions that employ millions of US workers, and the pandemic is giving suppliers a chance to defend their cause.

RightHand Robotics, for example, helped its client Walmart Inc (WMT.N) manages more online orders through greater use of its sorting machines that have been deployed at various facilities in the chain, said a person familiar with the matter. Walmart did not respond to requests for comment.

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Vince Martinelli, head of product and marketing at RightHand, declined to comment on the deployment, but said: “If you have a few people in the building, the last thing you want them to do is a simple task that can be done. be automated. "

Amazon is also relying more on the automation pandemic to classify the items that warehouse workers have unpacked, saving the team from having to go through each other frequently, as the more manual process was necessary, the company said. The company plans to launch the technology more widely in its buildings.

Kindred, RightHand and robotics firm Berkshire Gray told Reuters they are seeing an increase in inquiries from prospective retail customers, although travel restrictions and the need to limit human contact make the new facilities a challenge.

The Kindred SORT system uses artificial intelligence and Autograsp technology for its suction and gripper controls, seen here at Kindred's facilities in San Francisco, California, USA, on May 13, 2020. Gap Inc accelerated its orders and system implementation Kindred SORT in its warehouses in the USA to limit human contact during the coronavirus pandemic. REUTERS / Nathan Frandino

The interest is not surprising: researchers at the Brookings Institution said that outbreaks of automation generally follow economic shocks, a phenomenon that, they say, can be repeated as retailers' sales drop.

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"At such times, employers exchange less skilled workers and replace them with technology and more skilled workers, which increases labor productivity as the recession eases," said the think tank's March report.

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"They never break"

The pressure to make distribution networks more efficient is likely to increase for retailers because of their financial problems during the pandemic.

Gap last month said it faced a cash shortage, prompting it to lend $ 2.25 billion. Three-quarters of its revenue in the last fiscal year came from more than 3,300 physical stores, most of which closed for weeks.

Although the Gap has kept stores in China in business and started reopening another 800 this month, its e-commerce operation has been a lifeline for sales.

The San Francisco-based Gap did not disclose the financial terms of its agreement with Kindred, nor the basic compensation for employees. The company said it has about 6,500 warehouse workers, who receive higher wages because of the health crisis. It is limiting the number of facilities due to US health guidelines.

Kindred's "CLASSIFY" machines help Gap assemble purchases with various customer items.

Goods from several online checkout cars fall on a ramp and enter a large basin that is part of one of the machines. A robotic arm above takes each unit by means of physical suction and tightening, scans its barcode and places it in a trash can in an adjacent cubicle. Once all of the items on a customer's order are inserted, a worker places the trash on a carrier for packaging and delivery.

Kindred, based in San Francisco, is one of several startups that sell artificially intelligent robots that aim to capture almost any item quickly and without breaks. Hundreds of thousands of US retail workers are doing this, and Amazon Chief Executive Jeff Bezos said the technology is years away from taking on that job. Still, retailers can use robots to choose narrower sets of products.

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Tchakarov of Kindred said: “Our robotics systems, they never get tired. They never take breaks.

Kindred and Gap say they want technology to complement workers, not replace them. In its warehouses, Gap is still looking for new contractors – and potentially new machines.

"Should we do even more?" Kuntz asked. "How quickly can a Member build these machines?"

Jeffrey Dastin reporting in San Francisco; edition of Greg Mitchell and Edward Tobin

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