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Uniqlo Automates Tokyo Warehouse With T-Shirt-Folding Robots

Automation is on the rise as the retail industry heads into a new decade.

Japanese apparel retailer Uniqlo is not just embracing the technological shift, but also driving the move to robot-run warehouses.

The brand’s owner, Fast Retailing, replaced 90 percent of the workers in its Tokyo warehouse with machines last year. At the time, the company cited Japan’s ageing population and a dearth of available workers as the factors necessitating an innovative, technical solution.

Now, Fast Retailing has partnered with Mujin, Inc., a Japanese intelligent industrial robot controller manufacturer, and Exotec Solutions SAS, a French robotics solutions provider, on a full supply chain transformation. In a November statement, the company detailed plans to “deploy picking robots employing artificial intelligence-based motion planning” in order to streamline the apparel picking process, among other tasks.

The new two-armed robots, revealed in a video from Mujin, Inc., can identify clothing items wrapped in plastic and pack them for shipping. They can also fold T-shirts using their suction hands and 3D vision, and can even delicately place packing slips into the boxes they prepare for shipment.

“We will draw on the outstanding ability and experience of all three partners to strengthen our supply chain by stepping up our warehouse automation and global transformation,” Takuya Jimbo, group executive vice president of Fast Retailing, said.

“Placing customers at the heart of our business means delivering the right products that meet the real needs of customers, at the right price, in the right quantities, in the right place and at the right time. This is something we aim to be the first company in the world to achieve,” he added.

Automation has already demonstrated the potential to revolutionize many aspects of retail, from warehouse operations and logistics to in-store restocking and checkout. The trend toward advanced tech solutions also has the potential to revitalize U.S. manufacturing, according to the National Council of Textile Organizations.

Earlier this year, Amazon debuted automated technology that can pack warehouse e-commerce orders five times faster than human employees. The company installed CartonWrap machines from Italian packaging solutions firm CMC S.r.l. at a limited number of fulfillment centers in March, with an eye toward expansion.

The robots, which big-box retailer Walmart had already been using for about three years prior, have the dexterity to handle, sort and box a wide range of items, from clothing to electronics.