Symbotic: Steering an Automated Supply Chain

Chris Gahagan, President & CEO It is just another day in one of Symbotic’s automated warehouses. The scene is no different from a chapter out of a utopian, sci-fi novel or a futuristic, advanced engineering technology-enabled factory set-up of a Hollywood movie. Eliminating the archetypal elements—conveyors, sorters, drive-outs, mergers, and pick slots—Symbotic has devised a no-touch handling system with an army of agile robots, tinted green that travel incredibly fast, storing, and retrieving products efficiently. “Fixating on our mission statement—to reinvent the warehouse—we got our warehouse swarming with Bots that cohesively managed the inventory,” sparks Chris Gahagan, President and CEO, Symbotic. As a robot highbrow, the company develops material handling solutions designed specifically for the supply network.

A conventional warehouse, built exclusively for grocery, general merchandise or beverage would normally accommodate myriad cases, pallets, pick slots, and Stock Keeping Units (SKUs). In these updated warehouses, a system operator is employed with sorting inbound pallets categorically, whereas a selector picks up an assortment of items that match with the original order list. The combined process of computation of the 3D puzzle to build a pallet and item selection barely equates to a productivity of 25,200 cases per week. Symbotic’s densely constructed inventory management system produces a significantly high figure of 20 million cases per week. “What’s more; a conventional warehouse is limited to holding a fixed number of pick slots, and adding further pick slots requires complete re-slotting,” notes Gahagan. “We solve the problem by defragmenting the pallet entirely and storing items as individual cases.” Symbotic stores these cases in what they call a core storage structure served by autonomous mobile robots that carry one to four cases at a time, along smaller driveways, eliminating the need for pick slots.

The Storage Structure

Taking the form of a multistoried building, Gahagan says that a storage structure is analogous to a bookshelf with a multitude of aisles and levels. “Some of our structures are up to 22 levels high and when we get a pallet in, we ‘depalletize’ them and then store the cases in the structure, one case at a time,” explains Gahagan. Under the hood, a storage structure is decked with heterogeneous items in a pseudo random order that is programmed by the software. Symbotic’s storage structure replaces the traditional pick slot scenario—where a maximum of 55-60,000 units can be stored—with 1.2 to 1.4 million units of storage cases and this breeds efficiency by providing room for more storage.

Without changing the warehouse from ground up, we can instantaneously modify the layout

Adding to the flexibility factor, Symbotic’s storage structures can accept newer SKUs as fast as when a requirement arises, which a traditional inventory management takes about four to six weeks to set up, re-plan, and re-slot. “When a warehouse has to address the storage and distribution needs of a newly added stock vendor to a store, our time to bring in the new SKU is minimalistic, completely changing the flexibility of a store,” Gahagan states. “Without changing the warehouse from ground up, we can instantaneously modify the layout to keep the SKUs that are in use and to do away with the ones that are no longer required.” He recounts the story of how a local grocer once faced an ordeal in retaining warehouse employees. The regional grocery client with the help of Symbotic had effectively automated their storage, freeing up nearly 25 percent of the warehouse, which ultimately led to a reduction of labor by more than 50 percent.

Custom-built Pallets

Symbotic can effectively address the needs of procuring partial pallets, which in normal cases is not a favorable option as it occupies the same footprint as a pallet in a warehouse. “In the case of slow-moving grocery, when there is an inbound partial pallet—be it one or seven layers of a pallet—our Bots feed it into the system one case at a time,” affirms Gahagan. “In fact, there are huge business benefits; many of our customers have recouped millions of dollars worth of inventory by buying limited layers of goods.”

When it comes to item retrieval, Symbotic’s autonomous Bots travel at a speed of 25 miles per hour and have the reserved capability to fetch any item—closest or farthest—in the entire storage structure simultaneously avoiding collision. The software spun around smart algorithms ensures that the storage units at the time of ‘palletization’ are stacked in the desired sequence as requested by the customers. “If the customer could simply tell us the order in which the cases are to be placed in the aisle of a store, for example canned corn next to soup, then we could build the pallet with that knowledge at no additional cost,” states Gahagan. “Instead of the conventional warehouse, we optimize the pallet for making the store more efficient; all it requires is a simple software change.” The configuration can be made effective at the time of deployment or as the system matures, and the choice stays at the customer’s disposal.
The ‘software change’ occurs at an intermediary layer, leaving the hardware and PLCs intact, preventing a disruption to the workflow of the existing warehouse.

The Green Co-worker

Locally maintained and managed by the Symbotic team, the Bots reside within the physical storage structure and are more than what meets the eye. The software layer sends instructions to the Bots at all stages, including receiving inbound cases, strategically placing and sorting the cases, and sequencing the outbound cases accordingly. Debunking popular myths about a robotic setup consuming vast proportions of power and maintenance, “Our structure has no motors, no electricity, and most of our customers run it dark, since the Bots are self-driving,” evinces Gahagan. The ideology behind drawing a line between the Bots and humans calls attention to Symbotic’s scheme to alienate the systems from any form of interaction, allowing more legroom for further storage, increasing the cube utilization of the building.

"Instead of the conventional warehouse, we optimize the pallet for making the store more efficient"

Befitting logistics and eventually the entire supply chain, Symbotic’s intelligent warehouse management strategies and distribution mechanisms minimize expenditure and expedite the process on a number of counts. Of particular concern is the fact that the system is broadly used in the omnichannel retail paradigms, where customers run two or more different kinds of products, such as grocery and cosmetics. The grocery section contrasts the cosmetics section, where the latter would receive goods on full pallet basis, the cosmetics—being a slow mover—may receive only half pallets or break packs. The ‘depalletized’ content— now composed of individual units—can be repacked in an optimized fashion for transportation, eliminating empty spaces in the truck. “With lesser trucks serving a store, our customers reduce the number of miles a truck records,” signifies Gahagan. Down the lane, this allows the warehouse managers to run a very efficient warehouse, while the logistics teams can draft and operate a nimble supply chain.

At the crossroads of programming inexpensive robot-infested infrastructure that entwines compute power, sensors, and emerging technology trends, Symbotic is letting the word out on the street about the easy and affordable reach of an automated supply chain. Expecting to make larger leaps in the logistics arena with IoT-driven trucks that can notify and alert the warehouse about delivery and pickup schedules with intricate details, Symbotic is marching on an unflappable road to an automated destination.


Wilmington, MA

Chris Gahagan, President & CEO

Designs robots for an automated warehouse, making the supply chain more efficient