In this story: How Flipkart’s adoption of a future-ready tech is helping humans and bots work towards speed, safety and customer satisfaction.
Over the past two months, Adarsh S, hub in-charge at a Flipkart sortation center in Bengaluru, has been getting increasing requests from his off-roll employees. Almost all of them want to work with the new, swanky robots at the mezzanine level of the sortation area.
“It looks nice,” says Kishore Nayak, who works with the transportation team at the hub. In his mid-twenties, Kishore left his northeastern home state of Assam for Bengaluru over 5 years ago in search of a better future. “I’ve worked with Flipkart for 4 years now. I know that this is a new technology and I want to learn how to work with it too,” he insists.
For his friend and colleague Krishna Singh, who works in the bagging section, it’s the novelty of the technology that is exciting. “I’ve told my family back in Jharkhand all about it,” he grins.
Watch the future-ready bots in action at a Flipkart facility:
The bright orange robots, or Automated Guided Vehicles (AGVs) as they’re professionally known, aren’t exactly what you’d expect ‘robots’ to look like. They’re cuboidal and tiny, about the size of a Roomba, and move swiftly, unlike the staccato of a robot dance. They’re loaded with sensors, which means that, despite there being over a hundred of them in an enclosed area, they don’t bump into each other, but rather wait as self-driving vehicles would in traffic. And they run 24/7, except when they automatically guide themselves towards designated charging points when batteries run low.
For a little less than two months now, these tiny helpers have been working in tandem with the humans at the Flipkart facility, also known as the mother hub, to process over 4,500 packages an hour. Flipkart’s robot-based sortation technology is the first in India, and among Asia’s first such deployments outside of China.
Dream project to automated reality
So how did these efficient helpers come to be at a Flipkart facility in India? The story, says Balamurugan N, Architect -- Automation Design and one of the key people behind introducing this technology at Flipkart, began sometime in March 2018.
“In the automation team, we look for new tech solutions across the globe. We read about AGVs being used at a Chinese facility,” he begins. “And we realized that it could be a game-changer for Flipkart.”
His colleague, Rajat Jain, Principal Program Manager, is quick to agree. “We were looking for a technology solution that could give us high throughput and high accuracy. Tech that could scale up fast and was modular in nature — and help us become more space-efficient,” he says, adding, “We found the answers in AGV.”
At first, however, the tech sounded too good to be true.
So, sometime in early 2018, the team members made a quick trip to see it for themselves. “We spent a day at the site trying to understand the technicalities and brainstormed on how we could adapt this to solve for very unique Indian needs,” says Balamurugan.
“Stakeholders also traveled to see how it could make sense for Flipkart and the Indian scenario. That’s when the project started and we started to make the business case,” he adds.
For that case to be successful, the team had one big question to solve for — can this tech scale up to an Indian complexity?
“The bots and software come from China, but to truly make it successful for our unique needs, we have pulled out all stops to Indianize this tech and really use it to solve for India,” stresses Balamurgan.
Future-ready in 10,000 sq ft
The AGV setup operates on three levels — the first, on the ground level, is where the packages are sent to the AGV area; level two is the bagging operation,; and level three is where the bots sort the packages according to the addresses.
Here’s a quick look at how the bots work:
Once customers place orders on Flipkart, the packages are identified and dispatched from a Flipkart warehouse to a mother hub to further sort them depending on the destination addresses. At the mother hub, the incoming packages are transported on trolleys to the ground floor of a three-storey mezzanine structure.
Here, the packages are manually loaded on a conveyor belt that transports them up two mezzanine floors. Once there, operators stationed at 6 locations along the conveyor belt pick up the packages and place them, barcodes facing up, on the bots. The AI-powered bots pass under a barcode reader, which decodes the address and directs the bots to the corresponding chutes.
The robots drop the packages into the chute, which terminates in a bag attached to one end. As the bag fills up, a red LED beacon indicates to the operators that it must be replaced. The loaded bag is sealed, moved to a waiting truck, and sent on its way to the next destination.
Solving For India
Every detail in the AGV process is uniquely Indian. The mezzanine, control wiring, conveyor belts and even the chutes have all been designed locally.
“People are excited to see the bots on the second floor — that is the novelty for sure. But the work from our local teams to really adapt it to our country — basically the Indianization of it all — happens on the first floor,” explains Balamurgan.
“It’s a combination of what could be delivered from China and the design inputs made in India,” adds Rajat.
India is the fastest growing market for the e-commerce sector in the world, much of it propelled by greater smartphone penetration, affordable 4G networks, and increasing consumer wealth. According to a report by NASSCOM and PwC, the Indian e-commerce market could likely grow more than fourfold to $150 billion by 2022.
To cater to this rapid growth and the changing needs of consumers in the country, Flipkart has doubled warehouse storage capacity and throughput, and the AGV technology solves for both these requirements. The bots are compact, modular, easy to maintain, and quick to deploy, enabling operations to scale up at lightning speed and giving Flipkart the flexibility to create distribution networks.
“We customized and designed the AGV to be the right the solve for scale and the upcoming growth. We essentially took a long-term view by creating a future-proof automation platform, which allows easy on-boarding of new automation technology,” says Senior Product Manager Sonali Thite.
The tech also helps the team better utilize an increasingly scarce resource in India — land.
The AGV setup uses a unique approach for its operations — vertical space utilization. The entire process is spread out over three mezzanine floors. “If we look at traditional sortation centers, we’ve never done vertical spacing. Because we are able to better utilize the space we already have, rather than expanding outwards, we are also able to achieve cost avoidance,” says Karthik Selvaraj, Associate Director at Flipkart. “We’re doing more with less,” he stresses.
Delivering speed, accuracy and safety
So what does this mean for the consumer?
Simply put — speed, accuracy, and safety.
In a conventional set-up, the complete life-cycle of a package in the sortation center — from when it enters the facility until it is loaded onto a truck — is around one and a half hours. For a shipment to make it to the truck leaving at 10pm, it needs to be in the facility by 8pm — any later and they only go out the next day, making the delivery that much later for the customer.
“However, with the bots, even if a shipment comes in at 9.30pm it can be loaded onto the truck at 10pm. And the orders reach the customers a whole day earlier,” explains Balamurugan.
In the near future, even the space-efficient nature of this tech could translate to quicker delivery for customers.
Balamurugan, who says the team foresees this benefit in the near future, explains it in detail. “For higher throughput, you usually need more space. Usually, for that you would need to look for space outside of city limits or have multiple sites. But as we are more space-economical with AGV, we can function out of smaller spaces within city limits and yet achieve higher productivity. For a customer, because the site is in their city itself, it saves time on transportation.”
The AGV setup also helps minimize the multiple touchpoints as compared to a manual process, where each shipment is touched multiple times. The fewer the touchpoints, the less the chances of the shipment being damaged on its way to the customer.
Audacity — the Flipkart way
Apart from introducing game-changing technology in the industry, there’s another thing that the team involved is particularly proud about. The complex AGV project — from drawing board to reality — was completed within an unimaginable deadline of 5 months.
To meet tight deadlines, and to keep things working in parallel, the team set up a demo with two AGVs inside the Flipkart offices. “The whole project was done on a live site. Business as usual continued, yet we met our timelines with this project,” Karthik is quick to add.
According to Prabhu Balasrinivasan, Senior Director for Procurement, who was tasked with finalizing the right vendor for the ambitious project, the decision to introduce the AGVs was a call based almost entirely on a core Flipkart value of audacity. “This is new technology and there is no data beyond the two years that they have existed. This was a calculated risk that we took,” he explains. The problems the Procurement team solved for, says Prabhu, were safety, flexibility and cost optimization.
A new way of working
At the sortation area, every now and again, the facility employees come up to the mezzanine floor to check out the latest addition to the motherhub. And on the floor, the operators and bots match in their swift, rhythmic movements, working in perfect harmony.
Venkat, an operator who has been working on the floor since the pilot project, was earlier part of the team that sorted the packages manually. “With the help of the bots, I’m able to do a lot more, with ease,” he says, visibly excited. Like many on the floor, this is Venkat’s first tryst with technology of this scale. “I’m learning something new that will help me grow in the future,” he adds.
All the operators work an 8-hour shift, and every two hours, those working in bagging in the second floor switch places with those working with the bots on the third floor. “We try to engage them in a way that the work does not get repetitive and both are learning from each other’s work,” explains Karthik.
Adarsh, who takes care of all manpower detail, says there is a noticeable change in how his employees are approaching the AGVs. “This is the first time they are working with tech like this and they are excited about how the robots work.”
All of the operators undergo rigorous training before they begin work on the floor. While at the automation area, they are mandated to wear safety helmets, jackets and shoes.
“There is a lot of knowledge enhancement with this training and subsequently working with the bots,” says Prem Kumar T, Senior Manager, MH operations. “They are trained at a level higher and are definitely upskilling as they’re learning about tech and are becoming more aware of the safety aspect as well.”
The bots take care of the more laborious functions of walking long distances while carrying multiple packages and scanning, both tedious tasks that can cause fatigue. With the help of the bots, packages at the facility are processed at twice the speed and with 99.9% accuracy, without burdening the workforce.
“The bots essentially complement the work that humans do,” explains Rajat. “In the long run, we are looking at higher throughput, which means we will need more manpower and bots. We are also creating an ecosystem that will include maintenance support, another area that will require skilled manpower,” he adds.
The project, stresses Karthik, has had a very positive effect so far. “The work is less stressful. Interest levels have gone up, productivity has gone up and people are eager to learn even more,” he insists.
For Kishore, it’s also a matter of pride to be associated with a company that’s working with pioneering tech in India. “I’ve told my friends, too, about what’s new,” he quips. “People keep asking me, ‘Flipkart mein robot aaya hai, robot aaya hai. [Robots have come to Flipkart].’ But none of them know what it looks like, so it’s fun to explain to them,” he says with a grin.
Adarsh, too, has been reluctantly fending off requests from his friends. “They ask me if they can walk into the facility can we see how it works!”
The Automated Guided Vehicle, for all of its novelty, is still a nascent technology. And with all new, cutting-edge tech, there are iterations and room to evolve. “We will be the first to embrace those changes and bring in more new technology to India,” says Balamurgan.
“We are determined to excel and innovate in the automation and robotics space,” adds Sonali.
For the team behind this ambitious project, this is just the start.
Photographs: Sophia Stephen, Roshan Pai and Arjun Paul