VF Welcomes New Crew of Associates…Robots

VF is utilizing a groundbreaking form of automation—by way of robots—to heighten a safe work environment for associates that increases productivity three-fold.

A crew of 11 robots have joined VF associates at a distribution center (DC) in Martinsville, VA, for a pilot program that launched in August 2020. The bots, manufactured by Locus Robotics, create an ergonomic workspace and help support associates by increasing social distancing in response to COVID-19. With health and safety more critical than ever and productivity up 63%, VF is looking to bring bots to DCs throughout the globe.​

Gamification has entered the VF distribution center as the easy-to-use machines, called LocusBots, have rocketed warehouse productivity. Their number-one task—other than being fun, savvy bot-colleagues—is to augment the picking process (picking is when associates sort outbound products in totes to be shipped). Essentially, these battery-run team members lift a huge load off human shoulders…literally.

Massive benefits for associates

“We needed a solution to increase associate productivity, ergonomics, and social distancing. Our associates in Martinsville were maneuvering heavy carts with outbound cartons across a concrete floor, which isn’t physically easy. A 36,000-square-foot picking area requires a lot of walking and is hard on the body. With COVID-19, we can only have one picker per aisle for social space,” said Melissa Johnson, Strategy Analyst, Distribution Strategy, Global Supply Chain at VF.

Melissa and the Engineering Team first learned about the robots at the 2018 ProMat Conference. Then, the pandemic catalyzed the dive into the robot world. With the closure of retail stores and surge of online shopping, VF needed a solution to improve efficiency and spatial management.

“After associates—also known as pickers—place the product in the tote, all they do is touch the screen to confirm the pick. That’s it. Then the robot goes off to the next location, saving associates walking time. It’s fast, simple and brings a certain level of gamification to the facility. It’s a lot more fun,” said Melissa.

A surge of performance

Before the bots arrived, associates could collect 55 units per hour. But with robot aid, they can collect an average of 90 units per hour. “With robots, we’ve had a 63% productivity increase—it’s a big deal,” said Roy Byrd, Senior Director, Product Fulfillment Systems, Digital Technology for VF. Roy’s team arranged the data mapping, so that we could sync our inventory with the robots and direct them to the correct locations.

“They maneuver around obstacles. If you’re walking down a wide aisle, they pass you. If you’re in a narrow place, they go the other way. They know what to do,” said Roy.

Watch them in action:

More LocusBots helpers to come

One of the common misconceptions about implementing robots is human replacement. That’s not the case at VF. VF’s focus is on keeping associates safe with proper social distancing, creating a more ergonomic workplace, and speeding up productivity by leveraging artificial intelligence in facilities.

Now that the initial pilot program has closed, more robots will join the flock at Martinsville and a second squad will be introduced at the DC in Santa Fe Springs, CA, in November. Those bots will be leveraged for picking and restocking shelves.

“We are excited about using robots in Santa Fe Springs. The DC is larger compared to the compact area used for the pilot program. We think that the efficiency will be even higher,” said Roy.

Ahead, VF sees a rich opportunity to roll out bots at distribution centers worldwide including Danville and Visalia, in California, as well as in Canada, Mexico, and Europe.