Behind China’s top e-commerce sites Taobao and Tmall, there are nearly 450 million Chinese buyers who are constantly buying things online. Imagine the amount of work involved in moving around goods at warehouses. This is when robots come in handy.
Robotics automation is transforming the logistics and supply chain processes. Kiva Systems, an American robotics company now named Amazon Robotics, is the front-runner in this robot arms race. According to Bloomberg, it has cut Amazon’s operating expenses by about 20% by managing the Amazon’s warehouse.
While Amazon Robotics leads the automation market, things are looking up in the East as well.
Chinese logistics robotics startups such as Geek+ and Kuaicang are ambitiously expanding as well. While the former recently secured RMB 150 million (USD 22 million) in Series A financing, the latter landed RMB 200 million (USD 29 million) in Series B financing.
Spotlight on Geek+ Technology
Geek+ Technology is among those Chinese robotics startups that are rapidly growing. It aims to use robots to provide smart warehousing storage solutions. Set up in 2015, the company has assembled a team of about 100 roboticists, salespeople and other staff.
To further explore how a logistics robot startup functions, AllChinaTech paid a visit to the company’s robotics lab located in northern Beijing and sat down for a chat with its CEO.
The startup’s lab is a flurry of activities and moves. Its robots, which look just like larger versions of robotic vacuum cleaners, slide along the floor like hockey pucks and are able to carry items that weigh from 500 to 1,000 kilograms.
“Logistics robotic systems are the result of three different kinds of professional techniques combined together: hardware, software, and knowledge of logistics,” said Yong Zheng, the CEO and co-founder of Geek+ Technology. “We have recruited top talents to push forward our development of robot-relevant techniques.”
Indeed, it is teamwork that makes the bots move. In the lab of Geek+, teams of roboticists work on various projects in different phases: some develop new models, while some debug the software systems of current robots.
Zhu Jiali, a software engineer at Geek+, was working on a seemingly trivial but crucial task: making sure that the stock shelves face the same direction when the robots move. “I’m trying to adjust the data little by little to make it [the robot] to perform at its best,” said Zhu.
The Chinese advantage
It has taken years, but a handful of startups are finally ready to catch up and equip the world’s warehouses with robots on wheels.
Although the competition is getting heated globally, Yong Zheng is confident in taking the lead. Holding an Industrial Engineering degree from Tsinghua University, he knows a thing or two about robotics. After working in the logistics industry and later in an investment company targeting robotics automation, Zheng co-founded Geek+ in 2015 with three other robot experts who mastered hardware and software development. They make a great team with their automation know-how and knowledge of the logistics industry.
“If you want to run a company that lasts long, you need to have thorough knowledge of the logistics industry,” he said.
Cutting costs is another thing startups look into. The standard of precision for warehousing robots is less demanding, so the companies do not have to purchase high-end industrial components from abroad. The China-made components might do the job just as well for logistics robots. “Our robots can be made 100 percent in China,” he said. “This definitely cuts down costs.”
What does the future look like for Geek+?
The startup is also aiming to upgrade its technology to run an even larger warehouse. The largest warehouse currently managed by Geek+ is the one at Vip.com, one of the dominant e-commerce Chinese websites known for its cosmetic sales.
“We now have about 100 robots to operate the warehouse that’s about 5,000 to 6,000 square meters large.” said Zheng. He stressed that the team’s goal is to develop a system that can run a warehouse of 10,000 square meters.
However, he said that the company’s ultimate goal is to develop an unmanned automated inventory storage system. Another thing he has in mind for this ambitious expansion plan is to eventually dispatch delivery drones to directly ship items to customers. “So our technology will be able to reach the consumers’ end,” said Zheng.
Human force at risk
Despite the technology boom, the flesh-and-blood variety is still considered better for work that involves more creativity. The automation, however, does displace human labourers who move items around in warehouses. With robots being deployed, these are the people whose jobs are most at risk.
“Moving stuff around is what warehousing is about. This is a job that can’t bring much value,” said Zheng.
However, there are opportunities associated with this significant change as well. “With the support of the smart warehousing system, the e-commerce websites can better develop their business and potentially create more job opportunities,” he said.