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Retail

Uniqlo taps robot startups to take humans out of its warehouses

Japanese fashion giant aims to completely automate all within five years

Fast Retailing CEO Tadashi Yanai, center, says Uniqlo is aiming for full automation of its warehouses within five years. (Photo by Rurika Imahashi)

TOKYO -- Japanese fashion giant Uniqlo is partnering with two robotics startups to automate the last tasks still handled by human workers at its warehouses, a process that the company hopes to complete within five years.

The company signed strategic global partnership agreements with Mujin of Japan and France's Exotec Solutions, parent company Fast Retailing announced on Wednesday, the latest step in a 100 billion yen ($917 million) supply chain transformation project launched last year.

Fast Retailing CEO Tadashi Yanai said the company will leverage the startups' technology to achieve full automation at its warehouses "within three to five years."

Uniqlo has already made strides toward this goal. In October 2018, it partnered with Daifuku, a Japanese material-handling equipment company, to help automate its flagship Ariake warehouse in Tokyo. The number of workers at the warehouse has since been slashed by 90%.

One step that still requires human hands, however, is selecting and packaging items to be shipped to customers or stores.

To automate that process, Mujin will provide an AI-equipped robot controller that enables industrial robots to "think and move on their own," said Mujin CEO Issei Takino. "We can keep creating innovation together with Fast Retailing."

Exotec Solutions, founded in 2015, produces small robots that can climb up to 10 meters and collect items from racks. The company has sold its robots to French e-commerce and grocery giants including Carrefour and Cdiscount and aims to double its robot production to 1,000 next year.

Fast Retailing produces 1.3 billion item of clothing yearly and sells them at 3,500 stores in 26 countries and regions. A more flexible and responsive supply chain has become critical for the company as its expands and strives to meet growing demand across diverse markets.

As part of its supply chain transformation project, Uniqlo last year partnered with Accenture and Google to develop a demand forecasting system.

Uniqlo is also aiming to cut down on waste and aims to become a company that "does not produce, carry or sell wasteful things," Takuya Jimbo, Group Executive Vice President of Fast Retailing, told a news conference. To this end, the company will build-up systems to produce clothes based on market trends and then agilely deliver them to the stores and consumers.

"In terms of sustainability, we will make clothes that are [only] truly necessary for customers," Yanai said.

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