Wesfarmers’ online retailer Catch Group is increasing capacity by as much as 40 per cent by installing more than 100 mobile robots at its Truganina distribution centre in Melbourne.
The autonomous mobile robots (AMRs), supplied by German-based logistics company Körber, will enable Catch to pick an additional 2000 orders an hour and expand its range by 80,000 stock-keeping units to more than 1 million.
It is the biggest deployment of AMRs for an e-commerce marketplace in Australia and reflects the boom in online sales during the coronavirus pandemic and Catch’s ambitious growth plans, following its $230 million acquisition by Wesfarmers in June last year.
Catch’s sales, or gross transactions, rose 75 per cent in the June-half, lifting full-year sales by 49 per cent to $632 million. It had 2.3 million active customers at the end of June and customer numbers are rising by 30,000 every week.
“With the way e-commerce is evolving and the company is growing, we needed a solution we could implement a lot quicker and these robots meet that need,” said Catch Group’s head of fulfilment, Richard Whetton.
The AMRs, which resemble robotic vacuum cleaners, move around the distribution centre, picking up densely stacked shelves and carrying them to work stations, where human pickers unpack products and put them into totes on conveyor belts.
The robots are faster to install than fixed robotics systems such as those in place at Catch distribution centres. They are also flexible and can be moved to respond to changes in demand.
“It’s easy to scale and the lead time is quite short, so if we find there’s not enough, we’ll be able to add robots and pods and ramp up a lot quicker than we otherwise would be able to do,” Mr Whetton said.
More jobs for humans
Catch is considering building new distribution centres in Sydney, Brisbane and Perth to meet growing demand. Online retail penetration is forecast to rise to 17 per cent of total sales by 2024, up from 11 per cent now and 9 per cent in 2019, according to a report this week by UBS.
“The rates of growth we’re seeing are unprecedented,” said Catch’s general manager fulfilment, David Matheson. “We’re getting more than 30,000 new customers every week and we wanted a solution that was scalable.”
Catch declined to reveal the value of Wesfarmers’ investment but said the project was aimed at increasing capacity and speeding up delivery times – shipping more orders the same day – rather than cutting costs. The AMRs will not replace human pickers and the investment will create more jobs in areas such as maintenance and engineering.
“While it’s significant, it’s really about improving the customer experience,” said Mr Matheson. “This investment allows us to expand the range faster and leads to faster picking and despatch times – we find speed of delivery is becoming more and more important to our customers.”
Mr Matheson said Catch had chosen Körber (formerly known as Cohesio Group) as its AMR partner because the company had a strong track record and had worked for several years with other Wesfarmers businesses including Kmart, Bunnings and Blackwoods.
Nishan Wijemanne, managing director of Körber Supply Chain Asia Pacific, said the company worked with other customers such as Cotton On Group, Chemist Warehouse and Woolworths across various technologies that the company supplied.
In June, eStore, an online logistics company backed by Kogan.com co-founder Ruslan Kogan, unveiled plans to invest $40 million opening two state-of-the-art fulfilment centres which use AI-enabled AMRs similar to those supplied by Körber.
This article was originally published by the Australian Financial Review. Read the original here.