Executive Perspective

Brightpick’s AI-Powered Robots Drive Unprecedented Cost Savings

In this exclusive interview, Jan Zizka, CEO and co-founder of Brightpick, shares insights into warehouse automation and its impact on achieving e-grocery profitability. Discover the strategies and innovations helping grocers meet the growing digital demands while optimizing costs and enhancing customer satisfaction.
Neha Ghai
July 17, 2023

Jan Zizka

CEO & Co Founder

The COVID-19 pandemic accelerated the adoption of e-grocery, leading to a shift in customer behavior where convenience and flexibility have become the norm. Grocers have adapted by investing in digital technology to cater to omnichannel shoppers. However, ensuring profitability in this competitive landscape remains a challenge. Meeting consumer demands for fast and convenient delivery while maintaining healthy margins requires an increased focus on supply chain efficiency.

According to a recent Grocery Doppio research study, digital sales are projected to represent 20% of overall sales by 2025, highlighting the growing importance of the e-grocery market. Grocers must prioritize warehouse automation at their fulfillment centers to turn this challenge into an opportunity. By adopting technology that enables efficient e-grocery fulfillment, including increased order picks and timely delivery, grocers can meet customer demand and drive sales.

Implementing automated solutions, such as robotic systems that seamlessly handle picking tasks and a combination of human and automated processes, can optimize the end-to-end management of online orders. This approach allows grocers to streamline operations, improve efficiency, and enhance the overall customer experience. 

Brightpick is revolutionizing e-commerce and e-grocery fulfillment in warehouses with its state-of-the-art AI-powered robotic solution. Brightpick drives efficiency by automating critical processes such as picking, order consolidation, and dispatching. By providing a comprehensive end-to-end solution developed in-house, Brightpick enables optimized cost management, improved predictability, reduced picking errors, and substantial labor savings. Brightpick can achieve remarkable labor savings of 95% or more for tasks such as replenishment, picking, and dispatch (exact labor savings will depend on how many products are robotically pickable). With its cutting-edge technology, Brightpick empowers warehouses to meet the evolving demands of e-commerce and e-grocery fulfillment with unparalleled efficiency and productivity.

In this exclusive interview, Grocery Doppio and Jan Zizka, CEO and co-founder of Brightpick, discuss the company's vision and objectives for the future of e-grocery fulfillment in the rapidly expanding digital grocery landscape. Zizka emphasizes the shift from traditional operating models and the importance of AI-powered robotic solutions that enable grocers to save costs, reduce picking errors, and optimize fulfillment processes for faster and more efficient operations. 

Grocery Doppio: Tell us about yourself and what inspired you to start the company.

Zizka: As an engineer and scientist with expertise in computer vision, machine learning, and robotics, I discovered my passion for entrepreneurship and creating a meaningful impact while studying at MIT. The robotics and machine learning fields are experiencing remarkable advancements, making it a fascinating time to be involved in these domains.

Brightpick’s journey started 10 years ago with the creation of our own 3D camera, which we call the “eyes” of our robots. After that, we developed an AI engine for robotic picking (our robots’ “brain”) and, finally, an autonomous mobile robot platform (the “feet”). All these technologies came together in our flagship robot Brightpick Autopicker, which works like a human with a cart, capable of robotically picking and consolidating orders directly in the warehouse aisles. As our company grew over the years, we assembled a talented team of 300 individuals, with each growth phase presenting unique experiences and challenges.

Throughout our journey, we have engaged in multiple rounds of funding, starting from seed funding and progressing to Series A and Series B. We are contemplating a potential Series C round to fuel our ongoing growth. The journey has been remarkable, providing us with inspiration and the satisfaction of solving complex problems.

One specific problem that captured our attention was the fulfillment challenge, particularly in e-grocery and e-commerce. Recognizing the need for more efficient solutions, our team used our expertise and tools to tackle this problem. I find immense joy and fulfillment in what I do and am fully committed to our vision, and I often dedicate 14 to 16 hours a day to my work.

Grocery Doppio: Can you provide an overview of your warehouse automation fulfillment solution?

Zizka: Our automated fulfillment solution for warehouses is specifically designed to address the challenges of e-grocery fulfillment, recognizing the rapid growth and unique demands of online grocery shopping. The average e-grocery order has 10-15 times more items than a non-grocery online order, highlighting the need for efficient order picking for e-grocers. We expect the e-grocery fulfillment market to surpass the entire e-commerce market, measured by the number of picks or individual items shipped daily. 

A traditional e-grocery fulfillment center consists of various storage and picking zones, including areas for ambient, chilled, frozen, fresh, and bulky products. Through access to valuable insights from our customers, we have designed our solution from the ground up to address the varying needs of e-grocers.

Efficiency and flexibility are at the core of our solution, as we aim to harness the advancements in robotics and automation to meet the escalating demands of online grocery shopping. We prioritize optimizing every aspect, from our robots to the layout of the fulfillment center. By tailoring our solution to the distinctive requirements of e-grocery, we strive to deliver an effective and adaptable solution that can cater to the evolving needs of this dynamic market.

Grocery Doppio: Can you walk us through the architecture of your three-tiered Brightpick Autopickers and Intuition software?

Zizka: In grocery logistics, there are diverse operational approaches at play. Traditional distribution centers primarily deal with pallets and distribute them to retail stores, which is not the main focus of our solution. Instead, our focus lies on shipping complete orders to end customers.

What sets our solution apart in grocery logistics is its emphasis on addressing the intricacies of fulfillment, as opposed to the conventional approach of pallet distribution centers. Unlike typical e-commerce warehouses, our solution recognizes the need for specialized picking zones to accommodate a wide array of grocery items, such as ambient, fresh, bulky, chilled, and frozen products.

Brightpick Autopicker is at the core of our solution. It is the only mobile robot in the world that robotically picks and consolidates orders directly in the warehouse aisles. In addition to in-aisle robotic picking and order consolidation, Brightpick Autopicker can be used for other important tasks such as goods-to-person picking, stock replenishment, and dynamic slotting. Our software, Brightpick Intuition, orchestrates and optimizes the entire robot fleet, automatically sending the robots to human pickers if they can’t robotically pick an item. We can typically pick 80%-90% of all groceries, but there will likely be some products that require human picking, such as bananas. 

We establish connections with stores, micro-fulfillment centers, or larger fulfillment centers, generating orders for end customers. Our solution encompasses the entire end-to-end flow, with our robots navigating between shelves and creating orders.

The flow encompasses robotic picking, a few human-handled items, dispatching, and final delivery by drivers. The term "end-to-end" is used because our solution covers most processes within a fulfillment or micro-fulfillment center. We handle tasks such as loading goods, robotic picking, order consolidation, dispatching to drivers, or curbside pickup, ensuring a seamless flow.

After items are picked from each zone, they are sent to the dispatch area, where they are consolidated into final and complete orders. Brightpick Dispatcher robots sort the totes from different zones to create complete orders. Our software layer fully optimizes this consolidation process, streamlining order preparation and expediting fulfillment. Previously, this consolidation step was manually performed by human operators.

Furthermore, our solution incorporates a temporary storage area where orders can be buffered before dispatch. This feature allows grocers to pick up orders in advance and store them until the designated dispatch time. By doing so, they can optimize order processing during peak periods when there is a high demand for deliveries. Picking orders earlier and storing them in the buffer area enables grocers to handle more orders during peak times. This flexibility empowers them to manage the intraday cyclicality characteristic of grocery fulfillment effectively.

Grocery Micro Fulfilment Center Layout

For example, suppose a grocer has an order scheduled for delivery between 3:30 pm and 4:00 pm. Instead of waiting until 3:00 pm to begin picking the order, they can pre-pick it in the morning and store it in a designated buffer area. This enables them to dispatch the order at the appropriate time without needing last-minute picking. Such flexibility is paramount in grocery fulfillment, as it experiences significant intraday cyclicality. During peak hours, like the afternoon when people return home from work, the demand for deliveries spikes. By allowing grocers to pick orders in advance, our solution empowers them to handle a larger volume of orders during peak periods. They can surpass their maximum order capacity by spreading the picking process throughout the day rather than being constrained to the peak period alone.

Grocery Doppio: What are the specific pain points your solution addresses?

Zizka: Our automation solution for grocery fulfillment addresses several key pain points in the industry.

Labor Costs: Our high level of automation enables businesses to significantly reduce their dependency on manual labor, leading to cost savings and improved efficiency. Skilled employees can efficiently oversee the robotic fulfillment center, minimizing the requirement for a large workforce. Notably, our solution achieves remarkable labor savings of up to 95% to 100% for tasks such as replenishment, picking, and dispatch, depending on the number of human-pickable items.

Cost Optimization: Our solution is designed to assist grocers in optimizing their operations for better cost-effectiveness, particularly in the low-profit margin grocery industry. By streamlining fulfillment processes, we effectively reduce overhead and make e-commerce a more viable and profitable business model for grocers. Furthermore, we have successfully met customer demands for enhanced performance within limited spaces. Through our advanced algorithms and increased automated deployment, we have achieved an impressive 50% increase in picks per hour within the same footprint. In the US, our solution has resulted in a substantial 50% reduction in costs per pick compared to fully manual operations.

Picking Errors: We understand that picking errors can impact customer satisfaction. Our automation technology minimizes the likelihood of errors, ensuring that customers receive the correct products they ordered. This enhances trust and confidence in the online grocery experience.

Predictability and Efficiency: Our automation solution improves the predictability of the fulfillment process, enabling better demand anticipation and efficient order fulfillment. By owning and integrating all components in-house, we ensure a seamless and optimized solution, resulting in a 50%-100% efficiency improvement.

Seamless Integration: Our solution seamlessly integrates into existing store fulfillment processes, providing flexibility and rapid deployment. It effectively addresses labor costs, cost optimization, picking errors, predictability, improving customer satisfaction, and operational efficiency in grocery fulfillment.

Grocery Doppio: What challenges have you faced in implementing your technology in the grocery industry? How does your technology integrate with other technologies that a grocer may already use?

Zizka: Our journey in the grocery fulfillment center has involved navigating various complexities associated with different product categories, such as ambient, chilled, frozen, fresh, and bulky items. Our objective has been to create a versatile and powerful robotic system capable of replacing human operations in these areas. This endeavor took us approximately 10 years to achieve, with a focus on the grocery industry for around two years.

Our close collaboration with top grocers globally has been instrumental in understanding the intricacies of their processes and tailoring our solution specifically for the grocery sector. We have learned to address specific challenges, including managing expiration dates, which required extensive learning and industry focus. Initially, there were concerns about adapting IoT technology to the grocery industry. However, we have witnessed substantial growth and adoption, especially with the impact of COVID-19. The number of picks in grocery facilities has rapidly increased, with millions of additional picks occurring daily.

In cases where grocers already have established fulfillment centers, our primary focus is optimizing their operations to enhance efficiency. However, for more complex scenarios, such as regional grocers or those starting from scratch, we strive to integrate with in-store picking and other services. Sometimes, we may develop solutions to address their unique challenges. By collaborating with other services and offering our expertise, we aim to assist regional grocers in streamlining their operations and increasing efficiency.

Grocery Doppio: Considering the fierce competition in the industry, what is your company's unique proposition? What makes it stand out from others?

Zizka: Two key aspects set us apart from other companies in the market. First and foremost, we offer an end-to-end solution that encompasses picking, consolidation, and dispatch – the entire process from start to finish. This comprehensive approach, tailor-made for the grocery industry, is a significant proposition no other company currently provides.

Second, we differentiate ourselves by simultaneously automating walking and picking, which is crucial in grocery fulfillment. While other companies may offer robotic picking arms, they are often separate entities. However, we optimize the entire process holistically, improving efficiency by 50%-100%. We ensure a seamless and optimized solution by owning and integrating all the components in-house, from development to manufacturing.

Our holistic approach extends beyond technology. Our team comprises experts who deeply understand the grocery industry, its processes, and its unique challenges. This multidisciplinary approach allows us to create a product that caters to the specific needs of our customers.

Grocery Doppio: Please elaborate on the key areas and success stories where automated end-to-end robotic solutions offered by Brightpick have proven beneficial for grocers compared to the broader industry. Additionally, what quantifiable metrics can be used to gauge the efficacy of these solutions? 

Zizka: From a technical standpoint, one of our notable advancements is our advanced fleet management system. This system is crucial in complex environments where multiple robots operate simultaneously. We utilize algorithms and machine learning to optimize motion planning, minimizing waiting times and blockages for the robots. This level of complexity surpasses what even solutions like Amazon Kiva, which operate in grid-like patterns, have achieved.

We have also successfully addressed customer demands for improved performance within limited spaces. By leveraging our algorithms and adding more robots, we have achieved a 50% increase in picks per hour within the same footprint. Our solution is highly flexible, allowing us to adapt to changing requirements by adding shelving for expanded storage or deploying additional robots to enhance performance. When it comes to our customers, our focus extends beyond abstract efficiency gains. We prioritize delivering tangible benefits such as cost savings and labor reduction. 

For instance, when a customer aims to process 10,000 orders per day in their fulfillment center, we tailor our solution to meet their specific requirements. This may involve incorporating more robots, adjusting the system's design, and implementing other optimizations. By reducing the travel distance needed to pick items by 30% to 50%, our solution achieves double the throughput per robot compared to other goods-to-person AMR solutions, which typically achieve between 15 to 30 picks per robot, per hour, depending on layout and travel distance.

Our ultimate goal is to provide our customers with cost savings and enhanced labor efficiency. In the US, we have achieved a substantial 50% reduction in costs per pick compared to fully manual operations. However, these percentages can vary depending on factors like labor costs in different regions. For example, in Eastern Europe, the reduction may be around 20%, while in Germany, it could reach 40%. Notably, labor savings are particularly significant for tasks like replenishment, picking, and dispatch, where our solution can deliver savings ranging from 95% to 100% based on the involvement of human-pickable items.

Brightpick's recent success story involves collaborating with Rohlik Group, a leading e-grocer in Europe. Following a successful pilot of our robotic solution at their Prague fulfillment center, Rohlik Group plans to deploy Brightpick's AI-powered robots in multiple warehouses starting in 2023 and continuing into 2024. With more than 1.5 million e-grocery customers and 12 million annual orders, Rohlik Group recognizes the value and efficiency our solution brings to their operations.

Grocery Doppio: What upcoming products or services does your company plan to release?

Zizka: We recently announced a breakthrough product, Brightpick Autopicker, representing a significant culmination of 10 years of robotic AI and machine learning development. With a dedicated team of 300 people working on this massive system, we take immense pride in its creation. Our primary focus now is to collaborate closely with customers to deploy the product in various installations, particularly emphasizing its suitability for chilled environments.

We are mindful of delivering its full potential while maintaining a strategic approach to its deployments. As we progress, our relentless pursuit of efficiency remains a top priority. We are committed to continuously improving and optimizing every aspect of the system. Additionally, we are exploring partnerships with integrators to enhance our capabilities further. However, we recognize the importance of careful execution and planning, given our rapid growth.

Grocery Doppio: How do you see the market for AI-driven personalization in the grocery industry in the next 5-10 years?

Zizka: AI is set to drive various revolutions, and it's interesting to note that robotics is a field that AI itself won't heavily disrupt. While it may sound counterintuitive, everyone already expected robots to become more intelligent with time. 

The grocery industry is experiencing significant growth, and it's expected to continue growing at a rate that even companies like Brightpick may strive to keep up with. Major grocers are already developing systems to find the most efficient ways of fulfilling orders, whether through centralized fulfillment centers (CFCs), micro-fulfillment centers (MFCs), or store fulfillment options. 

Brightpick aims to play a vital role in this context by providing the most efficient fulfillment system available. The company's mission aligns perfectly with the industry's needs, and the goal is to collaborate with grocers to create highly profitable solutions that address the challenges of replacing human pickers in stores. 

Brightpick envisions introducing new and innovative products in the next five years. However, the timeline for such developments is challenging to predict accurately due to the rapidly evolving nature of technology.

A Little About Yourself

Jan Zizka with the Brightpick Autopicker

Grocery Doppio: Tell us about your creative side when you're not developing solutions.

Zizka: I have a strong passion for soccer, and while I didn't pursue it professionally, I enjoyed playing at a semi-professional level. I make time for at least one game per week as it provides a great way to relax and stay active. Besides soccer, I enjoy spending time with my wife and two dogs. It contrasts how I used to spend most of my time behind a computer screen, primarily programming. Now, my role involves more diverse tasks and interactions, including meetings and discussions. Occasionally, I also enjoy dancing to electronic music, although I no longer have many opportunities. Overall, I have a penchant for speed-related activities, whether playing soccer or driving my car.

Grocery Doppio: Please tell us an impactful piece of advice you followed during the challenging days that helped you continue your journey and would inspire new entrepreneurs.

Zizka: Over those 10 years, I have gained immense knowledge and experience. It isn't easy to summarize everything, but one key lesson I've learned is the importance of passion and surrounding yourself with a team that shares that same dedication. The best marketing or manufacturing operation only matters if you have a passionate and cohesive team. While intelligence is valuable, passion is the driving force behind success.

Another valuable lesson I've learned, mainly from my experience in startups, is the power of rapid prototyping. It's essential to iterate quickly, even if the initial prototypes are imperfect. The key is to learn from each iteration and make improvements along the way. This approach allows for faster progress and helps avoid assuming you fully understand a problem from the beginning.