Fabric, an automated fulfillment startup whose robots pack, lift, and wheel products around rooms with ceilings as low as 11 feet, today announced a partnership with FreshDirect. The online food grocer says the collaboration will enable it to enlarge its Washington, D.C. Metro Area service footprint by adding two-hour on-demand delivery for a “wide selection” of products.
Microfulfillment centers — located inside existing stores or structures that hold a market’s worth of goods — are increasingly being hailed as the answer to speedy shipping in space-starved city centers. Calgary, Alberta-based Attabotics’ solution condenses aisles of warehouse shelves into single vertical storage structures that roving shuttles traverse horizontally. As for Fabric, AI orchestrates robots within its site walls to break orders into tasks and delegate them autonomously, bringing items awaiting shipment in totes to teams of employees who pack individual orders. Other robots move packaged orders from temperature-controlled zones for fresh, ambient, chilled, and frozen products to dispatch areas, where they’re loaded onto a scooter or van.
When Fabric’s partnership with FreshDirect launches in late 2020, it will employ a “hub-and-spoke” model in which the grocer’s primary facility will remain at its Bronx, New York headquarters. Upgrades will be rolled out across FreshDirect’s D.C. Metro delivery footprint, spanning the Washington, D.C.; Silver Spring/Potomac; and Vienna/Dulles areas.
Fabric, which was founded in 2015 and now employs over 170 people across its Tel Aviv and New York offices, takes a modular, software-led robotics approach to fulfillment. The startup’s customers choose a platform model to run and operate independently on their real estate or a service model in which fulfillment is offered as a service with minimal investment.
Over the next year, Fabric plans to spin up microfulfillment centers in 15 sites under contract and “several cities” across the U.S., including two live microfulfillment deployments. In something of a proof of concept last December, the company launched an 18,000-square-foot grocery site in Tel Aviv that’s now delivering orders to online customers. Fabric’s first sorting center, also in Tel Aviv, covers 6,000 square feet and services over 400 orders a day for drugstore chain Super-Pharm.
Warehouse automation is anticipated to be worth $27 billion by 2025, driven by voracious demand during the pandemic. According to a recent Honeywell survey, more than half of U.S. companies are open to investing in automation, led by the ecommerce, grocery, food and beverage, and logistics sectors. That’s perhaps because heavily staffed warehouses have had to be modified to allow for physical distancing, in some cases cutting productivity. Gap has more than tripled the number of item-picking machines it uses, while behemoths like Amazon say they’re relying more heavily on automation for product sorting.
Fabric rival Attabotics raised $25 million in July for its robotics supply chain tech, and InVia Robotics this summer nabbed $20 million to bring its subscription-based robotics to ecommerce warehouses. In the EU, supermarket chain Ocado deployed a robot that can grasp fragile objects without breaking them and French startup Exotec detailed a system called Skypod that taps robots capable of moving in three dimensions.