Gap rushes in more robots to warehouses to solve virus disruption

The Kindred SORT system at a Gap warehouse, which can do the job of an employee whilst limiting human contact. (Reuters)
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Updated 22 May 2020

Gap rushes in more robots to warehouses to solve virus disruption

  • Gap last month said it faced a cash shortage, prompting it to borrow $2.25 billion

SAN FRANCISCO: US apparel chain Gap is speeding up its rollout of warehouse robots for assembling online orders so it can limit human contact during the coronavirus pandemic, the company told Reuters.

Gap reached a deal early this year to more than triple the number of item-picking robots it uses to 106 by the fall. Then the pandemic struck North America, forcing the company to close all its stores in the region, including those of brands Banana Republic and  Old Navy. Meanwhile, its warehouses faced more web orders and fewer staff to fulfill them because of social distancing rules.

“We could not get as many people in our distribution centers safely,” said Kevin Kuntz, Gap’s senior vice president of global logistics fulfillment. So he called up Kindred AI, the vendor that sells the machines, to ask: “Can you get them here earlier?“

Sourcing parts in time for the eight-foot-tall robotic stations was not simple or cheap, said Kindred’s COO Marin Tchakarov. But the venture-backed startup was able to deploy 10 of them to Gap’s warehouse near Nashville, Tennessee and 20 near Columbus, Ohio, with plans to finish the rollout to four of Gap’s five US facilities by July.

Each machine handles work typically performed by four people, Kuntz said. Neither the deal to triple the number of robots, nor the expedited installations, have been previously reported.

The news illustrates how the pandemic may speed up automation in the retail industry. Companies including Gap and Amazon have long used such systems for a range of tasks, like moving items across warehouse floors. Various new technologies are capable of supplanting some cashier, box packing and item picking roles that employ millions of US workers, and the pandemic is giving vendors a chance to make their case.

The firm RightHand Robotics, for instance, has helped its customer Walmart Inc. manage more online orders through greater use of its picking machines that had been deployed at several of the chain’s facilities, a person familiar with the matter said. Walmart did not answer requests for comment.

Vince Martinelli, RightHand’s head of product and marketing, declined comment on the deployment but said as a general matter, “If you’re going to have limited people in the building, the last thing you want them to do is a simple task that can be automated.”

Amazon is also relying more in the pandemic on automation for sorting items that warehouse workers have unpacked, sparing staff from having to walk by each other frequently as the more manual process once required, the company said. It is looking to roll out the technology more widely in its buildings.

Kindred, RightHand and robotics firm Berkshire Grey told Reuters they were seeing a rise in inquiries from prospective retail clients, though travel restrictions and the need to limit human contact would make new installations a challenge.

The interest is no surprise: researchers from the Brookings Institution have said spurts of automation often follow economic shocks, a phenomenon they said could be replayed as retailers’ sales plunge.

“At these moments, employers shed less-skilled workers and replace them with technology and higher-skilled workers, which increases labor productivity as a recession tapers off,” the think tank’s March report said.

Pressure to make distribution networks more efficient is likely to increase for retailers because of their financial woes during the pandemic.

Gap last month said it faced a cash shortage, prompting it to borrow $2.25 billion. Three-quarters of its revenue its last fiscal year came from over 3,300 physical stores, most of which it has closed for weeks.

While Gap has kept shops in China in business and has started the re-opening of 800 others this month, its e-commerce operation has been a lifeline for sales.

Gap, based in San Francisco, did not disclose the financial terms of its deal with Kindred, or its base pay for staff. The company said it has around 6,500 warehouse employees, who are receiving higher wages because of the health crisis. It is limiting numbers in facilities because of US health guidance.

‘Dubai will be my new Beirut,’ say grieving Lebanese workers

Updated 1 min 22 sec ago

‘Dubai will be my new Beirut,’ say grieving Lebanese workers

  • About 350,000 Lebanese now live and work in the six Gulf nations

DUBAI: Just days after the enormous blast that shattered Beirut, Ali Hammoud found himself looking down on the rubble from an airplane window, leaving behind his family and hometown.

Born and raised in Lebanon’s capital, the 30-year-old IT engineer finally decided to head for Dubai after the explosion destroyed his last hopes of ever seeing Beirut prosper.

“It’s not easy at all, but I had to finally leave. I feel I’ve betrayed the city I love to death, but there is nothing left for me there except depression,” Hammoud said after arriving in the Gulf emirate.

“Now I can start a professional career, live in peace and send money back to my family,” said Hammoud, who had spent a year looking in vain for work before the Aug. 4 disaster that left more than 170 people dead and compounded Lebanon’s financial crisis.

Like many of his compatriots longing for safety and stability, the young man has applied for a job in Dubai. He joins tens of thousands of Lebanese who helped build a glitzy city that reminds them of their parents’ tales of the glamor of old Beirut — but with glimmering skyscrapers instead of Ottoman-era and French colonial villas.

Last week’s explosion of a long-neglected stock of ammonium nitrate at Beirut’s port ripped through the vibrant coastal city known for its rich history as well as legendary nightlife and cuisine.

The fact that Lebanese officials had long tolerated a ticking time-bomb in the heart of the Mediterranean city has served as proof to many of the rot at the core of the state apparatus.

“My aim is to overcome the guilt of leaving,” said Hammoud. “Dubai will be my new Beirut.”

Long before the explosion, Lebanon was heading downhill fast. The country was mired in its worst economic crisis since the 1975-1990 civil war, with runaway inflation and bank capital controls fueling angry street protests.

Political life in the country has been dominated for three decades by former warlords who exchanged their military fatigues for suits.

Among Sunni Muslim, Christian and myriad other groups, the most powerful force is the Shiite Hezbollah movement.

After years of systematic corruption, unsolved assassination cases, wars with neighboring Israel, and lack of basic services, many Lebanese now see the country’s elite as fighting over the spoils. They are viewed as beholden to their personal and sectarian interests, rather than the good of the nation of 6 million.

“I can’t explain how frustrated I am. I had to leave my country years ago because of those warlords. They stole from us and now they kill us?” said Firas Rachid, a 31-year-old salesman who has lived in Dubai since 2016.

Beirut, once famous for top educational and medical establishments, has lost much of its pre-civil war identity and its reputation as an oasis of enlightenment.

Millions of Lebanese, from doctors to engineers, to teachers and other professions, have emigrated over the years, seeking a better life in the Gulf and beyond.

About 350,000 Lebanese now live and work in the six Gulf nations, more than 100,000 of them in the United Arab Emirates alone, mostly in Dubai.

“Why Dubai? We drive in lanes here, we don’t fear militiamen holding guns to our heads, we have basic services, and we get paid well,” said Rachid. “My parents always describe Beirut as a hub for the region in the ‘60s and ‘70s, but this is exactly what Dubai is now.”

In his book “My Story,” Dubai’s ruler Sheikh Mohammed Bin Rashid Al Maktoum recalls his first visit to Beirut, years before the civil war that brought the “Paris of the Middle East” to its knees.

“In the early 1960s, its streets were clean, neighborhoods beautiful, its markets modern. It was a source of inspiration for me. I had a dream for Dubai to become like Beirut some day,” he wrote.

Decades later, Dubai has become a magnet for millions of Arabs whose countries have been ravaged by poverty and conflict.

Jordanians, Palestinians, Moroccans and others have opted to build their future in the desert city.

It does not have the history or cultural heritage of their homelands, but for many it is a fair tradeoff for peace and financial security.

At a basketball game in Dubai last year between two Lebanese clubs with different sectarian ties, there was no violence, no sectarian chants, only the slogan: “Three, two one! We are one!“