The sports gear retailer added autonomous mobile robots ahead of the 2020 holiday season, which boosted productivity and efficiency while keeping workers safe amid COVID-19 guidelines.

Sports gear and apparel retailer evo had a really tough holiday season in 2019. But 2020 gave evo time to re-evaluate and invest in why it was tough.

“Like most retailers, we have the holiday peak, but being a winter gear retailer really exacerbates that,” said Spencer Earle, director of supply chain, during a session at the National Retail Federation’s 2021 virtual conference.

Evo, which generates 70% of its revenue from online sales, had moved into a new 165,000-square-foot warehouse just in time for the 2019 peak holiday shopping season. But evo found it hard to find temporary and seasonal workers. Plus, its efficiency and productivity in its fulfillment operations were sorely lacking, Earle said.

“While we made it through, it was chaotic and unsustainable,” he said.

A few months later, the coronavirus pandemic happened. Evo paused a lot of its projects and implemented a hiring freeze, Earle said. But once the retailer stabilized after the initial shock of how to handle the pandemic, he said, the retailer wanted to find a way to speed up fulfillment while also sticking to COVID-19 guidelines within the warehouse.

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“We would have 10 to 15 pickers at peak times and the bins are stuffed full, which mixes up SKUs and orders,” Earle said during the presentation.

Evo then learned about autonomous mobile robots (AMRs), which is a type of robot that moves through its environment without being overseen directly by an operator or on a fixed path. The retailer went with robotics vendor Locus Robotics Corp. and evo’s supply chain technology provider Körber Supply Chain helped to implement them.

Evo signed the contract on Aug. 31, 2020, and the robots were deployed 53 days later on Oct. 23, 2020. The retailer declined to share the cost of the investment.

It deployed 10 AMRs for use year-round and added an additional seven for the peak holiday season.

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Here’s how it works: A worker scans the order for the robot. The robot then moves through the warehouse to its first pick, where a different worker meets the robot at the pick location. The robot’s screen shows the picker which product to pick and the location of the product on the shelves. After the picker gets the product and scans it, the robot directs the picker to drop it in the correct bin that it’s carrying. The robot is then sent to meet its next picker for the next item, or if the pick is complete, it goes to packing the item.

“Early results are encouraging,” Earle said. The picking speed of the workers with the AMRs topped out at 125 units per hour versus 60 to 70 units before it had implemented AMRs, he said.

In addition, evo can do more picking work with five workers and the AMRs compared with 10 to 15 workers alone. And the warehouse workers find the AMRs a positive addition to the warehouse, Earle said. “The workers gave them names and personalities,” he said. “They saw the robots as there to help them, not replace them.”

Evo had never seen an implementation of a new technology that worked on the first day, which was very positive, he said. “We’ll occasionally have issues with an individual bot here and there, but the systems remain solid,” Earle said.

There is still room for improvement, Earle said. Evo plans to better match the bin size to the products picked to increase productivity.

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“These early successes are exciting because we can grow it and eventually add packing robots over time,” Earle said.

Evo is No. 419 in the 2020 Digital Commerce 360 Top 1000.

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