Up Close is Sourcing Journal’s regular check-in with industry executives to get their take on topics ranging from personal style to their company’s latest moves. In this Q&A, Kishore Boyalakuntla, vice president of products at robotic fulfillment company Berkshire Grey, discusses the cost and challenge of reverse logistics and why intelligent automation may be “inevitable” for retailers.
Name: Kishore Boyalakuntla
Title: Vice president of products
Company: Berkshire Grey
Which other industry has the best handle on the supply chain? What can apparel learn?
The pandemic has shown that supply chain competence and execution is a competitive advantage and can be a profit center. In the consumer electronics industry, Apple focuses on sustainability, inventory management, relationship with global strategic suppliers, demand management, execution at volume and scale with e-commerce and stores, and reverse logistics with upgrade cycle and recycling—leaving all of us with much to learn, including the apparel industry.
How would you describe yourself as a consumer?
I prefer sustainable products that deliver on the advertised fit and performance, at least most of the time.
As a consumer, what does it take to win your loyalty?
I prefer products from pure-play brands that have focused research and development, leading to better overall products, which tend to be more sustainable in the long term.
What’s your typical work (or weekend) uniform?
At Berkshire Grey, I mostly tend to stick to all black during the work week—it’s an easy decision in the mornings, and I love it. Depending on the season, weekends are a bit more casual with jeans or Dockers, T-shirts and sweaters.
Which fashion era is your favorite?
Nothing specific. I gravitate towards fashion that is comfortable, sustainable and minimalistic.
Who’s your style icon?
I don’t have one person specifically. I primarily look to people I admire and respect from all walks of life.
What’s the best decision your company has made in the last year?
Covid-19 brought incredible challenges to our customers—from supply chain issues to labor shortages—on top of the additional hurdle of executing on the industry shift towards e-commerce. During the pandemic, Berkshire Grey recognized the need for a new Innovation Center as our product portfolio grew, and during the second half of 2021, we had many customers come visit and implement our solutions as they prepare for the next decade. As a result, we launched several new products to increase throughput and improve efficiency in the areas of e-commerce fulfillment, store replenishment, reverse logistics and package and handling logistics. Products included robotic product sortation, automated put walls, robotic induction and mobile sortation robotics.
How would you describe your corporate culture?
Berkshire Grey’s culture values integrity, openness, continuous improvement and a customer-first mindset. Each employee is enabled to make decisions and execute, with interactions across cross-functional teams and with the CEO.
The products Berkshire Grey builds are very sophisticated and are at the intersection of robotics, artificial intelligence and systems engineering at an industrial or enterprise scale with high rates of innovation. Learning is intrinsic in our culture, with cross-functional teams leaning on each other to execute.
What can companies learn from Covid-19?
It is a generational opportunity to innovate with new and disruptive business models, new ways to delight customers with new experiences, and a prioritization on supply chain flexibility and resiliency with new systems and processes.
Covid-19 has shown that customers value e-commerce, short delivery times and ease of returns, which present unique challenges to retailers. Being best-in-class in each part of the value chain is key to profitability and long-term success, and investment into intelligent automation may be inevitable.
What should be the apparel industry’s top priority now?
I believe getting the e-commerce strategy right, visibility into the full life cycle of the customer buying experience and data-driven decision-making are key for growth and success. The apparel industry has high return rates, and reverse logistics is a big challenge, as it requires new warehouse space, expensive manual inspection and a sortation process. Developing strategies to reduce the cost of returns via automation should be a high priority for the industry.
What keeps you up at night?
Warehouses are as complex as aircrafts in flight. Millions of SKUs move through the warehouse with a need for high precision for e-commerce and store replenishment. We also have to balance reducing risk with innovating, which is made even more complicated when the innovation is on products requiring large capital investments and close customer collaboration at an industrial or enterprise scale that requires reliability at billions of picks and high throughput rates. The robotics industry is nascent and needs new products that solve complex customer problems, and it’s exciting to have the opportunity to execute on them.
What makes you most optimistic?
Our product success at customer sites, positive customer feedback and repeat customer orders make me optimistic. Our systems have picked millions of SKUs at very high accuracy and reliability. The brilliant team that I work with—the best in robotics and AI—and the culture at Berkshire Grey are a force multiplier enabling customer success.
Tell us about your company’s latest product introduction:
A Reverse Logistics solution for retailers. Consumers will return approximately $120 billion of goods following the holiday season, creating a significant inventory and cost challenge for retail. Returns processing has a significant adverse impact on the real profitability of e-commerce, as consumers expect free, no-hassle returns for their online purchases. Berkshire Grey’s Reverse Logistics solution helps decrease markdowns by speeding up returns processing to get goods back into inventory or moved to refurbishment up to 25 percent faster than manual processing while reducing processing costs by improving labor handling efficiency by up to 35 percent.