Close-up of a robotic micro-fulfillment solution.

Modern Material Handling
By Bob Trebilcock · October 14, 2019

Forget 500,000-square-foot—or even 50,000-square-foot—distribution centers. Materials handling automation and technologies are the next trend in brick-and-mortar fulfillment.

The industry calls it micro-fulfillment. It could be the answer retailers and grocers have been looking for to quickly and economically fill Buy Online/Pick Up in Stores orders, or BOPUS. While grocery is the earliest adopter, other retail segments, including Big Box retailers, are investigating different solutions to turn their brick-and-mortar space into mini DCs to serve the local market.

Both 3PLs and solution providers are getting in the game, and there is a sense that we’re in the “throwing stuff against the wall to see what sticks” stage. “There’s a lot of experimenting going on right now,” says Tom Galluzzo, chief technology officer for IAM Robotics, which has participated in some of those experiments. “It’s safe to say that there’s a lot of figuring out what might be the right approach and strategy, and that no one’s figured it out.”

From interviews conducted, Modern Material Handling has identified three emerging strategies, and they’re similar to picking strategies in larger DCs: Conventional pick to cart from store shelves; semi-automated pick from shelves in a back room or dark store; and highly automated solutions.

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