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FedEx’s four newest employees – Randall, Sue, Collin, and Bobby – look a little different from their co-workers. Standing over 6 feet tall and clad in metallic blue, these laborers can work for 24 hours a day, seven days a week without ever needing a break.
Randall, Sue, Collin, and Bobby are robots. FedEx has teamed up with San Antonio-based Plus One Robotics and Japanese manufacturer Yaskawa America to implement four new fully operational robotic arms in its small-package sorting system at its Memphis, Tennessee, hub. FedEx is headquartered in Memphis with this “SuperHub” – its largest sorting center in the U.S.
Named by their co-workers, the robots were brought into the facility in May and were formally announced by the packaging and delivery company Thursday.
“Having the robot[s] complete these repetitive tasks allows our team members to focus on higher-value, more productive work,” FedEx said in a statement. “For example, several of the team members … who had previously been sorting packages have since been trained to supervise and operate the robots.”
The robots allow FedEx to streamline the sorting of smaller packages and letters, which “are increasing in volume at an exponential rate due to the growth of e-commerce,” said Aaron Prather, FedEx Express senior technical advisor.
Yaskawa’s robotic arms perform the mechanics of sorting, while Plus One Robotics’ PickOne software works as the eyes, said Erik Nieves, Plus One Robotics co-founder and CEO.
“We are the enabling tech that makes all this work, which is the vision piece,” Nieves said.
PickOne works by identifying where items are through cameras and sending this information to the robot. The robot arm then picks up and places each item into a preselected area. The program then verifies item placement and addresses errors by issuing commands to move any items that need repositioning.
Nieves said this isn’t Plus One Robotics’ first project with Yaskawa and that the companies have worked closely together for the past two years. Nieves worked for Yaskawa for 25 years and left it to co-found Plus One Robotics in 2017.
“We trust each other implicitly and have worked hard to provide the best combination of advanced 3D vision guidance and robotics at a scalable level needed for companies like FedEx,” said Roger Christian, divisional leader of new business development at Yaskawa America.
The idea of implementing robots into a sorting system has been something FedEx has actively sought for the past two years, Prather said. The company debuted a delivery bot named Roxo in New York City last year – until the robot was unceremoniously kicked out by Mayor Bill de Blasio, who feared it would take jobs from humans.
So far, however, Randall, Sue, Collin, and Bobby have helped both FedEx and Plus One hire more employees, Prather and Nieves said.
Plus One Robotics has hired an additional two crew chiefs to help manage the robots remotely from San Antonio, and FedEx has hired a robot team lead to watch over the four robots at the Memphis hub. Prather said employees working with the robots have been “upskilling,” or learning new tech skills.
Plus One Robotics and Yaskawa have been on the FedEx radar for the past couple of years, Prather said, adding that Nieves is a “big advocate for this kind of tech.” For the past year, the three companies have been discussing a formal partnership, which they’d already been planning to implement before the coronavirus pandemic struck, Prather said.
“COVID-19 is just speeding all of this up,” Prather said. “We were already seeing a boom in e-commerce, and it was getting hard to staff areas even before the pandemic.”
The robots are able to fill gaps and move things along faster, Prather said, allowing employees to focus more on customer service than menial tasks. There are already discussions of implementing the robots into other FedEx facilities around the world as well, Prather said.
“FedEx is always looking for innovation to address growing volumes,” Prather said.
Nieves said he and his team at Plus One Robotics are very excited about the partnership and hope to continue bringing opportunities that help businesses scale up.