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Zalando pilots warehouse robots to pick shoe orders

Following a trial of two robots at Zalando’s Erfurt fulfilment centre, the retailer’s TORU robots will be joined by a further six and used to pick and pack customer orders from its Lahr warehouse.

Zalando first partnered with robotics company Magazino to trial two robots to help logistics employees at its warehouse. Testing in a controlled area of the fulfilment centre, the retailer found the robots were capable of identifying shoe boxes and picking individual orders, unlike standard warehouse robots which are usually used to move pallets around the DC.

Over the course of the trial, Zalando worked with Magazino to improve downtime and make the robots more efficient, before letting the machines work on live customer orders at its Lahr DC.

“At the beginning, the robots would stand still for a longer period of time during operation due to detection errors or computing time. By reducing these pauses, the number of pick-ups per hour could be increased considerably, so that the service is really efficient,” explained Carl-Friedrich zu Knyphausen, head of logistics development at Zalando. “However, it is still lower than that of our employees and will continue to be so in the near future.”

Knyphausen described how the robots examine shelves of shoe boxes using its 2D and 3D cameras to figure out where the box begins and ends, before using suction caps to remove the product from the shelf.

“The difficult thing here is that when two cartons of the same colour are stacked directly on top of each other, there are almost no edges visible. But with the help of artificial intelligence, TORU improved with every pickup, and can now fall back on prior experiences in tricky situations. Now, it has gathered enough data and experience, and has thus reduced its downtime.”

In a blog post, Knyphausen was quick to point out that the robots are not being introduced to replace its human workforce, but to be used for the physically demanding or monotonous tasks employees currently have to do. The robots use their cameras to identify human workers on the warehouse floor and politely pause to let employees pass if they step into their path.

Earlier this month, Adidas partnered with Zalando to provide customers with same- and next-day delivery in Paris. The pilot, which is expected to last up to a year, will see Zalando fulfil Adidas orders placed on Adidas.fr. Orders will be fulfilled from Zalando’s logistics centre in Moissy-Cramayel and will be delivered to customers in Adidas-branded boxes.

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