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Startups

China robotics startup offers automation in distribution centers

LiBiao seeks to capitalize on growing demand for e-commerce with sorting robot

Zhejiang LiBiao Robot's workhorse is an automated sorting robot called "Mini Yellow". (Photo courtesy of Zhejiang LiBiao Robo)

BEIJING -- A Chinese robotics startup is growing into a major supplier of technologies to improve the efficiency of operations at distribution centers that fulfill soaring e-commerce orders.

Demand for systems for more efficient and smarter warehouse management is strong in China, where online shopping has been growing at a breakneck speed, driving up the number of parcels handled. Despite the explosive growth of e-commerce, only about 20% of distribution operations are automated in China, compared with 80% in major industrial nations.

Zhejiang LiBiao Robot aspires to change the landscape of warehousing in the country. It is one of the equipment suppliers that are moving quickly to secure and expand a share in the ballooning market for warehouse automation products, such as autonomous guided vehicles (AGVs), robotic mechanisms that rely on autonomous technologies and sensors to move materials around factories and warehouses.

LiBiao Robot develops, manufactures and delivers AGVs as key solutions to automate warehouses and distribution centers operated by retailers and manufacturers.

The company's workhorse is an automated sorting robot, now in its fourth generation, called "Mini Yellow". Four years after the company started selling AGVs, some 10,000 of LiBiao Robot's devices are now operating in China, the U.S., Southeast Asia and Europe. It has also won some big-name clients, including U.S. retail group Walmart. According to the company, its robots now process nearly 2 billion parcels for home delivery every year.

The Mini Yellow is used mainly to sort relatively small parcels. In order to deploy them in a warehouse, LiBiao Robot has to design a special work station for the robots tailored to the facility's functions. It must then determine how many AGVs are needed to carry out the required tasks by analyzing the amount of parcels to be handled and the working hours involved. The robots are deployed to the work station and carry parcels automatically to designated locations by scanning their QR codes.

This may sound simple. But making this system work involves many tough technological challenges. Since a large number of AGVs -- hundreds in some cases -- move around simultaneously in the facility, it is no easy task to prevent traffic jams and ensure the machines do not collide with each other.

Another technical challenge is to make sure any glitches are fixed quickly to avert any serious disruption to overall warehouse operations. It is also difficult to program robots to sort parcels without making any errors.

The company has put a lot of effort into refining the hardware, software and management system for the Mini Yellow sorting system, according to LiBiao Robot Founder and Chief Executive Xia Huiling.

As for the hardware, the company has developed a special servo motor for the robot. A servo motor, a key component of a robot, is a rotary actuator that allows for precise control of angular position, velocity and acceleration. The company's servo motor is designed to support the stability and precision of the robot's movements.

With regard to the software, the company has used its own unique navigation program and algorithm to design a system that can direct many robots operating in a congested work environment, as well as an artificial intelligence-based system to enable robots to determine the routes they should take.

Mini Yellows can communicate with each other over a special W-Fi network and detect problems with a fellow robot, helping prevent service disruptions. The system has reduced the ratio of errors committed by Mini Yellow AGVs down to less than 0.01%.

Compared with a typical cross-belt sorter, the Mini Yellow sorting system is cheaper and occupies less space, requiring one-fifth to one-third of the space needed to install a cross-belt sorting system, according to LiBiao Robot. Set-up for the Mini Yellow system is also quicker.

One work station using up to 350 Mini Yellow robots can cover 1,300 sq. meters and handle 15,000 items per hour, allowing the warehouse operator to reduce human staff by 60%.

As well as selling the robot, LiBiao Robot also offers leasing options to allow companies to adjust the size of their robot workforces flexibly by, for instance, expanding the warehouse army during busy times through a short-term leasing contract.

In China, the startup also offers a "robot-as-a-service" (RaaS) option, under which the devices can be rented or leased on a monthly or hourly basis, along with upgraded maintenance and other basic services for the end-users.

The fees for this service are determined by the number of parcels handled. Even if a client decides to buy Mini Yellow robots, the costs are usually offset by the savings in one and a half to two years, according to Xia. Some 70% of the businesses that introduce the system become repeat customers.

LiBiao Robot plans to expand the scope of its target customers from warehouse and distribution center operators to include retailers that need to ship products from their warehouses and other players in all areas of the distribution business, from upstream to downstream.

To diversify its service offering, the company is also working on a new robot arm that can grasp items.

LiBiao Robot has forged a long-term strategic partnership with GLP, an investment holding company previously known as Global Logistic Properties which is engaged in the management and provision of logistics facilities.

In September 2019, Mitsui & Co. Global Logistics, a Japanese logistics services provider affiliated with trading group Mitsui & Co., announced that it had become the first company in Japan to adopt LiBiao Robot's sorting system, introducing it in its distribution center.

The Chinese company also supplied its products to Jun, a major Japanese apparel company, in November.

36Kr, a Chinese tech news portal founded in Beijing in 2010, has more than 150 million readers worldwide. Nikkei announced a partnership with 36Kr on May 22, 2019.

For the Japanese version of this story, click here.

For the Chinese version, click here.

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