COVID-19 is accelerating changing consumer behaviours and expectations of instant delivery, leading to a revolution in the way that goods need to be picked, packed and despatched. Roy Fraser, Global Product Manager for ABB, explains how robotic automation is providing the answer to meeting the opportunities facing the retail and distribution value chain.  

There is no doubt that the last 12 months have been especially significant for the retail and logistics industries, with COVID-19 accelerating the transformation that was already in effect. In particular, in 2020, as consumers became unable to visit shops, the level of goods purchased online increased exponentially, with e-commerce achieving in just 12 months a rate of growth originally projected to happen over five years. Statistics from Salesforce’s Shopping Index, for example, show that e-commerce grew by 47 percent in 2020, as more people went online to buy goods as shops closed due to lockdown restrictions. While many in the retail and distribution value chain had dreamed of such growth, few had the structures in place to achieve it, making it difficult to process and deliver the increased rate of orders or handle the greatly increased range of goods required. 

Another area where the shift has also been felt is in the availability of workforces to handle and despatch orders. In many cases, operators have struggled to match the increased demand for goods with workers, resulting in mass recruitment drives, such as Amazon’s hiring spree in 2020 to find 100,000 new staff to help it plug the gap in its headcount.  

Another significant driver for change has been the growth of direct-to-consumer (D2C) and direct-to-store (D2S) shipping, which is dramatically changing the way that consumers order and collect products. With these new retail models, consumers have an expanding choice of methods for receiving orders in addition to home delivery, which is becoming increasingly environmentally and economically unsustainable as more people shop remotely. These methods include click and collect, in-store collection and, more recently, robotic street kiosks, where shoppers pay for and receive the product of their choice.

It is therefore no surprise that companies are looking to step up their adoption of automated solutions, combining the flexible and fast performance and handling capabilities of robots with AI and smart software systems that can help to better manage order handling and distribution.

In a recent global survey of logistics and FMCG companies conducted by ABB, 91.5 percent of logistics companies said that their businesses had been impacted by the pandemic, with 93.3 percent of FMCG companies agreeing. As a result, both sectors are looking to increase their investment in robotic automation, with 63.8 percent and 50 percent of those surveyed in the logistics and FMCG sectors respectively responding that they were likely to be adding robots to their operations in the next five years.

When it comes to addressing the increased demand for packaged goods of all shapes and sizes, robot manufacturers, including ABB, have been working to provide the solutions needed to get orders despatched quickly to consumers in an expanded number of ways.

Greater flexibility


One challenge that has been solved by robotic automation is the need for flexible low volume, high mix package handling lines that can accommodate a range of different sized products in varying orientations. Designed for handling loads up to 10kg, ABB’s IRB 390 five axis FlexPacker™ robot, for example, allows parcels and packages to be picked from high-speed conveyors moving at up to 100 meters per minute and packed in either horizontal or vertical orientations into cases, trays, crates or other packaging formats. Utilising its fifth axis, the robot can rotate packs into a standing position, enabling them to be made ready for shelf display and reducing the time associated with unpacking and shelf replenishment at retail stores.

Keeping up with consumers

Another factor affecting automated packaging lines is the trend towards smaller packages, especially in the food and drink industry, which demands faster packaging lines to cope with the increase in speed from handling smaller pack sizes. A growth in the number of single occupant households, plus concerns over calorie and sugar content have led to a rising preference for smaller portion sizes in meals, snacks and soft drinks. For packaging companies, this requires flexible packaging lines that can respond quickly to changing consumer trends without significant disruption caused by having to reconfigure them to handle the new products.

With the emergence of digital twin technology, these hurdles can be overcome. Digital twin software such as ABB’s PickMaster® Twin enables a virtual representation of packaging lines to be built which can be used to test different configurations to arrive at an optimum solution. With an intuitive interface and the ability to use the simulation to simultaneously configure the running production line, PickMaster Twin dramatically reduces disruption to throughput by shortening commissioning times and enabling changeovers to be easily carried out in minutes. By allowing an optimum configuration to be thoroughly tested in an offline environment, PickMaster Twin also helps to eliminate the wasted product typically associated with testing and fine-tuning packaging lines, saving costs. Designed to be used with up to 10 of ABB’s IRB 360 FlexPicker® fast picking Delta robots, PickMaster Twin enables an entire packaging line or section to be configured from a single program.

The trend towards varying pack sizes is also supported by developments in vision and motion tracking technology incorporated in robotic solutions such as the IRB 360 FlexPicker®  , which can track and pick objects up to 8kg at a rate of up to 100 picks per minute. Also available in a hygienic stainless-steel option, FlexPicker increases the possibilities for rapid handling and packing of an increased range of items in food and pharmaceutical production lines. 


Embrace change with confidence

Given the acceleration of change – and opportunities – in today’s operating environment due to the global pandemic as well as other factors like the ongoing growth of e-commerce and the emergence of empowered customers demanding a wider range of choices, it pays to have a packaging line that is ready for anything. Offering a fast, flexible and adaptable solution for handling an expanding range of products around the clock, robotic automation provides the answer to meeting the challenges of today’s retail and distribution environments.

To discover more about the new IRB390 FlexPacker join ABB’s webinar.