The innovative online drugstore company Soap.com/Diapers.com is using robotics and computer vision technology to distinguish itself from other retailers -- by doing what no one thought was possible.
The company is seeking to fundamentally change the way people think about buying their everyday essentials by providing inexpensive overnight shipping to most U.S. cities. That required figuring out how to ship low-margin items to customers very quickly -- while still turning a profit.
The company skipped the traditional manual packing system in favor of a robotic one. Scott Hilton, executive vice president of operations, said this has increased the company's shipping efficiency by a factor of five or six.
When an order is placed on the website, the company's propriety software uses computer vision to determine the optimum boxing arrangement for the products. Unlike most retailers, Soap.com/Diapers.com uses 20 different box sizes to fit nearly any size order or combination of products. Other companies use only five or six box sizes, which often requires the use of extra packing supplies (for small orders) or additional shipments (for large orders).
As soon as an order is placed, Kiva robots bring the goods to employees, in real-time. The employees pack the boxes -- a process which is greatly simplified by the computer vision planning stage.
The company also has teamed up with a few specialty shippers that do next-day air. This enables customers to receive their everyday essentials, like diapers and soap, incredibly quickly.
"When a customer places an order, we want them to really think, 'Why would I place an order any other way?'" Hilton said.