While third-party logistics (3PLs) companies have offered Fulfillment–as–a–Service (FaaS) for years, automation technology vendors are now starting to provide FaaS solutions along with their more traditional technologies, products and services offerings, hence developing new revenue growth opportunities.

As the COVID-19 pandemic continues to hit economies across the world, the focus on automation in eCommerce is becoming sharper. In times like these, with online shopping becoming the norm rather than the exception, distribution centers cannot rely on human manpower alone to satisfy demand. At the same time, warehouse automation technology has come of age. It brings efficiency and speed to the distribution chain, from the moment an order is placed, to the point when the product is sent out for delivery. This post is an examination of a relatively new aspect of warehouse automation, but one which has the potential to open up lucrative markets for automation vendors – Fulfillment–as–a–Service (FaaS).

FaaS models

Historically, the business model employed by most warehouse automation vendors has been to sell the automation equipment and associated control software on a CapEx basis and generate recurring revenues through maintenance contracts. In some cases, the automation vendor will also sell or license Warehouse Execution Systems (WES) and Warehouse Management Systems (WMS) software packages used to manage the operations within the four-walls.

In recent years, some automation vendors have begun providing additional fulfillment services such as route planning, assortment management, front-end user interfaces, and in some cases last mile delivery. Research has identified a spectrum of FaaS offerings from automation vendors which can broadly be grouped into three major buckets:

  1. At one end of the FaaS spectrum, we see a CapEx/OpEx hybrid model whereby the retailer purchases the automation equipment on a CapEx basis and then takes out fulfillment services on a recurring-fee basis. This can either be a fixed monthly fee or a pay-per-pick model. 
  2. Next in the spectrum of FaaS is a solution where the automation equipment and the fulfillment services are both provided on an OpEx basis. There are no CapEx costs associated with this model, but importantly the retailer still owns the warehouse real estate. This is the model where the retailer commisions the automation vendor to build and operate a fullfilment center on its behalf.
  3. At the other extreme of the FaaS spectrum is a service-based model where the automation vendor leases out fulfillment capacity to retailers from a facility which is owned and operated by the automation vendor. This is similar to the way 3PLs operate multi-client fulfillment centers – the main difference being that the fulfillment center is owned and operated by the automation vendor. 

Micro-Fulfillment and FaaS

The Micro Fulfillment sector is growing at a particularly fast rate, making it fertile ground for companies trying to find growth in FaaS. Automated Micro Fulfillment Centers (MFCs) allow companies with or without a brick-and-mortar footprint within a particular area to move fulfillment closer to customers in order to reduce transportation costs and enable shorter delivery or pick-up times. MFCs work particularly well for high turnover items and in a highly volatile environment, where demand could spike way up or down rapidly. While traditional automation vendors are going down the route of selling just the automation equipment on a CapEx basis, many of the new entrants are offering FaaS models to varying degrees to MFCs vendors.

Online retail is a relatively new phenomenon for many companies in the groceries sector, particularly in the US, and as a consequence many grocers have looked to outfits like Takeoff Technologies and Ocado to provide a full-package fulfillment service on their premises. This is why companies like Takeoff are doing so well. There are, however, grocers which have a long history in online retail, such as Wallmart and Tesco, who have developed their own solutions. Tesco, for example, uses an off-the-shelf ‘plug-and-play’ solution from an established automation vendor whilst relying on its own in-house software to manage the fulfillment process. 

New collaborations along the value chain

To fill the gaps in a fast growing market, primarily to create a seamless order-to-delivery service, we are seeing increasing instances of collaboration in the value chain. One example is Attabotics. Their website header encourages companies to ‘Reinvent your supply-chain’, offering ‘3D robotic goods to person storage, retrieval and real-time order-fulfillment’.

Attabotics is an automation hardware and control software vendor, and the company recently joined up with the food business accelerato R Food-X to provide an end-to-end grocery fulfillment service.  Food-X recently signed a deal with Carrefour in Belgium and it is possible that this deal will include the Attabotics storage system. The deal includes several centralized fulfillment centers along with Food-X’s Software as a Service options that include AI-based order planning and picking algorithms, and last mile routing optimization. It is likely that we will see a growing number of partnerships between automation vendors and fulfillment service providers in the near future. 

Another example is Takeoff Technologies’ collaboration with Knapp. Knapp is a traditional automation vendor that sells automation equipment to customers on a CapEx basis. But in their collaboration arrangement, the two companies partner up. The customer buys automation kit in from Knapp and at the same time signs up to an ongoing FaaS contract with Takeoff to manage the system. 

Fulfillment as a Service: The integrated package that eases the way

MFC vendor Fabric’s slogan – ‘Get closer to grow bigger’ – encapsulates the aims of fulfillment as a service. Online retail is booming. Customer expectations are high in terms of quality of product and speed of delivery. It is difficult for retailers to satisfy the demand if they do not have the premises or the equipment to ensure customer satisfaction. One answer is the solution that companies like Fabric are beginning to provide. They are starting to offer retailers the opportunity to get close to the customer by renting space in their inner-city automated micro-fulfillment centers. 

Fabric’s FaaS model can potentially offer the full package to retailers – the end-to-end management of the fulfillment process, on an OpEx basis with no large upfront costs. Also available are retail space, often shared with a number of competing retailers, automated equipment, and management and execution software. General merchandise and apparel retailers are expected to be the main users of this ‘pure’ FaaS offering, as they typically have a smaller retail estate footprint to leverage for in-house MFCs. 

Final thoughts

None of the FaaS models will win out. Different retailers will opt for different variants of FaaS depending on their needs. Smaller retailers with limited cash resources and limited experience at eCommerce may opt for a full FaaS model whereby the automation vendor owns the real estate asset. Conversely, cash–rich tech–savvy retailers will likely bring much of the fulfillment in-house to avoid unnecessary overheads. That said, even the largest and most advanced retailers will always likely benefit from outsourcing additional fulfillment capacity during peak-seasons.

In the long run, micro-FaaS may be a lifeline for many smaller retailers looking to rapidly make serious improvements to their eCommerce offerings without having to make massive upfront investments. The FaaS model can offer scalable access to highly advanced eCommerce micro-fulfillment capabilities overnight.

Automation vendors were not originally built to offer FaaS, and it will be difficult for them to switch. One big downside will be an initial fall in revenues as they move from installing their kit on a CapEx basis to installing it on an OpEx basis. As the Fabric model demonstrates, many automation vendors may well still attempt to do so, and may find it a very attractive model for future revenue growth, in part simply because many 3PLs choose not to automate their own warehouses due to the insecurity of their customer contracts. For automation vendors entering the FaaS market, micro–fulfillment is an excellent test bed because it is an area that the main 3PLs are currently not really involved in at all. 

Interested to learn what impact this may have on your business? Contact us!

This post is based on a publication on Robotics Business Review