FedEx showcases autonomous tech, robotics helping it as volume grows

FedEx showcases autonomous tech, robotics helping it as volume grows

Max Garland

| Memphis Commercial Appeal
FedEx Robot meets City HallFedEx Robot meets City HallMEMPHIS – As FedEx gears up for what should be a record-breaking holiday shipping season, company leaders Thursday showcased the latest tech-forward developments in its arsenal to help handle the surge in volume.The FedEx leaders discussed in a virtual event how innovations like robotic arms at the Express World Hub in Memphis, delivery robot Roxo, automation at FedEx Ground facilities and a Mercedes-Benz collaboration will help the company move forward amid the COVID-19 pandemic and the flood of packages.“With COVID-19 already dramatically accelerating e-commerce, we’re entering a peak season that the industry has never experienced before,” Chief Information Officer Rob Carter said. “Frankly, we’ve been in peak since the beginning of the pandemic… We’ve got to have the best technology and the productivity tools we can for our team members.”The home delivery-focused FedEx Ground, the primary beneficiary among FedEx companies of the online shopping boom, has undergone several initiatives to better handle the smallest and largest packages it sees in its network, said Ted Dengel, managing director of operations technology and innovation at FedEx Ground.COVID-19 impact: The economy has produced too many low wage jobsStreaming video: Cut the cord for $10 monthly, but what’s the catch?One example: Autonomous tugs from Vecna Robotics are moving large packages around some Ground facilities to their next loading spot. The self-driving tugs are equipped with sensors and know the shape of the building they operate in, according to a FedEx video, and have been used at a hub in Greensboro, North Carolina.“The tugs just automatically move from one side of the building to the other,” Dengel said. “They know where they need to go, stop and move around if things get in their way. So, it’s been a great partnership. We’ve had them in a couple of facilities, and we really appreciate the flexibility that they give our operations.”For small packages, Dengel said Ground is investing in automated systems and robotics similar to the small-package sorting arms at the Express World Hub in Memphis. Additionally, Ground is piloting the use of autonomous vehicles to pull trailers off and on dock doors and “move them around more efficiently,” he said.The Memphis hub, home to four robotic sorting arms named Randall, Colin, Sue and Bobby, will see more arms installed next year once the peak season ends, said Aaron Prather, FedEx Express senior technical advisor. The arms were installed at the hub in March and each are sorting roughly 1,200 to 1,300 packages an hour, picking them up from a collection bin and moving them to a conveyor belt.“They work only eight hours a day right now, but that’s probably going to grow as our volumes continue to grow,” he said.Mercedes-Benz collaboration and Roxo under developmentFedEx leaders detailed other technologies still in development. Since 2018, the company has collaborated with Mercedes-Benz to help develop and test a cargo recognition and organization system called Coros.Coros removes the need for couriers to scan packages via handheld scanning device, said Katherine King, FedEx Express senior engineer. Instead, sensors scan package bar codes as the packages are being loaded into the van, making for a faster loading process. King called this solution the core piece of the Coros system.We’ve been working with Coros and Mercedes-Benz Vans (@mbvans) to test and develop the next generation of logistics technology within our US operations. The new AI-powered technology aims to help enable smarter, faster and more efficient package delivery. pic.twitter.com/c5nWK0Rkay— FedEx (@FedEx) August 24, 2020“In this space, saving a minute, much less 10 minutes or more, at this particular part of our operation translates to a lot of savings and improved delivery to our customers out on the road,” she said.Additionally, Coros’ “put and pick-by-light” system shows the courier the best place to put the package in the van via LED lights running along the shelves of the van, she said. The system can also use lighting to show where a package ended up in the van if it shifted during transit.One FedEx development eliminates the need for a van with a driver entirely for certain deliveries. Roxo, FedEx’s autonomous robot, will be used for same-day, on-demand delivery of small orders. Its “sweetspot” is deliveries within a 3-to-5-mile radius, said FedEx Office CEO Brian Philips.“The economics of the bot are such that it can be stationed at the customer’s site, whether that be a retailer or a restauranteur or a pharmacy,” Philips said. “It’s always charging, it’s always at the ready and it can be sent out on a mission at a moment’s notice.”Philips also touted the “FedEx Autonomous Mobility Ecosystem” (FAME) that was built for Roxo but can be used in other autonomous initiatives the company launches. FAME is made up of 12 applications, some repurposed from elsewhere in FedEx, which allow customers to reserve bot capacity, transmit orders to the bot, dispatch a bot, manage a bot fleet and more, Philips said.“This ecosystem is what allows us to turn Roxo into both a solution and, ultimately, into a business,” he said.Max Garland covers FedEx, logistics and health care for The Commercial Appeal. Reach him at max.garland@commercialappeal.com or 901-529-2651 and on Twitter @MaxGarlandTypes.


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