Mujin intelligent robot

TOKYO — Fast Retailing is harnessing the power of robots and artificial intelligence to improve its supply chain.

“We are taking these measures in order to create a future,” Tadashi Yanai, Fast Retailing’s chairman, president and chief executive officer, said during a press briefing at Uniqlo City headquarters on Wednesday.

As it seeks to automate its supply chain, the company has entered into partnerships with specialty and tech companies. Two of those partnerships, which were elaborated on during the briefing, are with robotics companies Mujin and Exotec.

Based in Tokyo, Mujin is known for its intelligent robot controller, utilizing motion-planning AI. The company’s controllers make any robot intelligent, allowing them to be used for new and previously impossible applications. Together with Fast Retailing, the company developed a new robot that can be used for picking garments, a task that until now had not been automated.

According to Issei Takino, Mujin’s cofounder and chief executive officer, there were a number of challenges with using robots to select apparel. For example, irregular shapes meant it was impossible for them to grab the items, and too many similar items in plain colors meant it was impossible to tell them apart. But the new robot developed for Fast Retailing solves these issues using AI, making the first step toward fully automating the retailer’s logistics.

Exotec is a French company that makes robotic order preparation systems. Its Skypod robots can carry up to 66 pounds of product, are guided by lasers and can move in three dimensions, including climbing up to 33 feet.

Takuya Jimbo, a Fast Retailing group executive vice president, said Fast Retailing’s ultimate goal is not to produce or ship any products that the customer doesn’t need, which Yanai posited would reduce waste. Integrated data and shorter lead times will allow the company to make quicker decisions, leading to more immediate action to meet customers’ needs.

Fast Retailing had previously announced that it plans to fully automate its warehouses, and that it has earmarked 100 billion yen in order to make this happen. Jimbo said Wednesday that figure hasn’t changed as the company makes progress through its strategic partnerships. In addition, Yanai said that while he expects full automation should take about five years to achieve under normal conditions, he hopes to make it happen even faster, perhaps in as little as three years.

According to Yanai, Fast Retailing’s current lead times vary, but the average is between one and two months. Some items require reserving the materials up to a year in advance. But with the complete overhaul of its supply chain, the company is aiming for a lead time of just two to four weeks.

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