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[Newsmaker] [From the Scene] Robot shelves, packagers behind Coupang's ultra-fast Rocket Delivery

Robots replace certain human jobs, but create more for sophisticated management

By Lee Yoon-seo

Published : Feb. 7, 2023 - 11:50

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Sorting Robots carry packages to deliver them to appropriate boxes. (Coupang) Sorting Robots carry packages to deliver them to appropriate boxes. (Coupang)

DAEGU -- Unmanned robots glide about a fulfillment center, depositing goods into boxes.

The boxes are each plastered with stickers bearing names of South Korean regions, such as "Daegu 1" and "Jeju Island."

Once the boxes are full, delivery trucks come to ship them to their appropriate destinations. The robots sort and move products by delivery destination in just a few seconds with several human employees overseeing the entire station.

The robots, which are named “Sorting Robots,” are one of the hidden protagonists that make the country's widely popular 24-hour delivery service "Rocket Delivery" possible by drastically reducing the time and manpower required to sort thousands of boxes.

The Sorting Robots are among some 1,000 robots working at South Korean e-commerce giant Coupang's Daegu Fulfillment Center, the 300 billion won ($237 million) automated logistics site.

Currently standing as one of the largest distribution centers in Asia with a total floor area of 330,000 square meters, the center houses the biggest number of logistics-related robots in Korea.

"One of the most frequently asked questions by Coupang Rocket Delivery customers is how we manage to deliver goods by the morning, when customers order them the night before," said Park Joo-ho, director of Coupang's Daegu Fulfillment Center during a briefing.

"Coupang was able to meet our users' demands with the most advanced logistics technologies in the country, such as Automated Guided Vehicles, Sorting Robots, and driverless forklifts," he added.

Automated Guided Vehicles carry items to a worker by following QR codes drawn on the floor. (Coupang) Automated Guided Vehicles carry items to a worker by following QR codes drawn on the floor. (Coupang)

According to Park, Coupang's ultra-fast delivery system first starts with the “Goods To Person” process.

In the past, a worker had to go to a shelf to find items ordered by customers. However, here, robot shelves loaded with 1,000 kilograms' worth of items come to the worker in a bid to drastically reduce work time.

These AGVs are robot shelves which follow QR codes on the floor to direct them on where to go. Upon reaching the employees, a remote sensor pinpoints the item on the shelf with a blue light for the worker to easily pick out the item.

"AGV reduced the total workload by approximately 65 percent, by delivering shelves (to workers)," said Park.

"It also drastically increased work efficiency, as AGVs operate 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, including holidays, when the number of orders skyrocket," he added.

Auto baggers pack the items. (Coupang) Auto baggers pack the items. (Coupang)

The selected items are then put into “auto baggers,” which automatically attach an invoice and seal the packaging after a worker puts the item into plastic wrapping paper.

The wrapped items are then placed on top of Sorting Robots, which classify them by region and put them into appropriate boxes seconds after scanning the waybill address.

Objects that weigh more than 8 kg are instead carried by driverless forklifts, which work in a separate, unmanned area on their own to prevent occupational accidents.

"We plan on exporting verified technologies used in the Daegu FC to other fulfillment centers operated by Coupang," said Kang Sung-hoon, south region director of Coupang Fulfillment Services.

Despite concerns that robot workers will replace human workers, Kang also said the automated delivery process is expected to create 2,500 new jobs, as the company will need to hire more automation technology managers, warehousing staff and workers that select items from shelves to send to packaging stations.

Coupang added that with the logistics-related technologies, they further expect to see growth in small and medium-sized businesses in Daegu. The company said that currently, roughly 7,000 SMEs from Daegu are enlisted as Coupang vendors. The companies saw an average of 112 percent increase in annual sales compared to last year with the Daegu FC's distribution capabilities.

"Daegu FC is a symbol of Coupang's investment in state-of-the-art logistics. We have created a work environment where employees can work more easily and comfortably through the digital transformation of logistics,” said Jong-chul Jeong, Representative Director of Coupang Fulfillment Services.

“We will do our best for the development of local small business owners and local communities, including steady job creation based on the state-of-the-art logistics infrastructure that combines product management using AI and automated robot technologies," Jong added.

According to a survey conducted by a big data analysis service Mobile Index, as of July 2022, Coupang stands as the most frequently used shopping app, with 27.66 million average monthly active users.