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Combining Robotics and Logistics

Combining Robotics and Logistics


By Masamichi Ujiie, Regional Vice President, North Pacific, FedEx Express

Every year, the number of industries and companies developing robotics increases. The logistics industry, of course, is a natural fit. The increased efficiency of existing transport operations is an obvious benefit. But the widespread use of robotics will lead to a new kind of value creation as we move towards a better society and future.

Benefiting the communities of tomorrow

The time for robots to start providing logistics services directly to end-users is not yet upon us. Still, considering the future innovations is an exciting prospect. One potential way of providing new value is to build a local delivery network that supports people and communities through inter-industry collaboration.

To begin with, robotics can be leveraged via delivery robots installed in local communities. Bases or hubs for these robots could be established in locations with clusters of retailers, such as malls or shopping streets. Retailers can drop off goods purchased by neighbourhood residents at the hub, and the robots can deliver the goods to customers. A diverse mix of business operators could engage in delivery of robot services. And it’s these collaborations between diverse retailers and logistics services that will provide more options and better convenience for consumers. In Japan, we truly believe that such services offer smart, well-suited solutions to problems stemming from Japan’s ageing society.

Supporting people and scaling up workforces

Robotics could also solve some of the labour shortage problems that have plagued the logistics industry in recent years. It could fall to robots to take on monotonous or lower-value tasks, freeing up employees to do jobs that require more nuanced knowledge and deeper experience. Even highly-skilled jobs directly related to the robots themselves will be in demand, such as the development of robotics and managing or controlling them effectively.

Naturally, these changes will help to upgrade work environments within the logistics industry and enhance job satisfaction too. Additional benefits include optimized management resources, improved service quality and enhanced customers experience – a winning formula all round!

At FedEx, innovation has been in our DNA since our founding, and we have been proactively introducing the latest technologies wherever we can. Part of our journey is towards robotics.

In the USA, robots are already used in our logistics facilities and offices. In 2018, we introduced an autonomous tagger to transport shipments too large to load onto our sorting system. It learns the floor layout of our hubs and warehouses, and built-in sensors enable it to navigate complicated pathways safely and efficiently.

For Asia-Pacific, our goal is to start migrating these same technologies to regional facilities that are ready to utilize them, starting with Japan.

Where next for last-mile delivery?

A common issue in the logistics industry is last-mile delivery. In recent times, the drop-off has been made all the more complex due to the ever-widening range of customer requests. At FedEx, we have begun to introduce autonomous delivery robots to improve the efficiency of on-demand delivery from retailers to houses close by.

Early last year, we rolled out a trial of Roxo, a same-day delivery robot, in the US.

Roxo is designed to take care of smaller goods that customers want to get quickly – from medicines to takeaway pizza. Though not yet a staple of every street corner across America, we’re beginning to visualize how our Roxo might best tackle the urban areas of the Asia Pacific and the specific challenges that come with each.

Already capable of smoothly navigating slopes and walkways with obstacles, Roxo’s functions will need to be adjusted to meet the delivery requirements of different markets and regions.

Such adjustments are already underway in Japan – a region that is no stranger to putting robots to work for the benefit of society. We’re well-placed here to start indoor-testing Roxo in readiness for the real world.

Acceptance and a new norm

Communities at all corners of the globe are beginning to get used to seeing robots in action, from schools to airports to hospitals. Some people may feel uncertain about how to interact with robots, while others may have safety concerns. And yet, it’s important that robotics be accepted widely. Familiarity – ubiquity even – will be key to mainstream acceptance. Once widespread, we can all look forward to greater business efficiency as well as an enriched quality of life for societies everywhere.