Körber sees robotics R&D as differentiator, plus signs of a market rebound

Korber VarioPick uses a robot arm for dynamic parcel picking.
VarioPick uses a robot arm for dynamic parcel picking. Source: Kӧrber Business Area Supply Chain

Many supply chain operations don’t have the expertise or time to evaluate and deploy automation, even if it could help them. Kӧrber Business Area Supply Chain said it offers best-in-class systems including robotics, voice, and software to meet a customer’s specific needs.

In January, Körber Business Area Supply Chain, one of four business areas within Hamburg, Germany-based Kӧrber Group, appointed Ananta Islam as new CEO and region president, Americas, for its parcel logistics business. He previously worked as a project engineer at Teledyne Energy Systems and in various sales leadership roles at GEA Group.

Mobile Robot Guide spoke with Islam about his background and the company’s outlook for supply chain automation.

Experience guides growth expectations

Ananta Islam, Korber Supply Chain
Ananta Islam, Körber Supply Chain

Why did you decide to join Körber?

Islam: I have an affinity for German engineering and was at GEA Group for 17 years.

When I was recruited by Körber, which is foundation-owned, I was attracted to the company’s entrepreneurial mindset and long-term approach to its operations strategy, financials, and markets.

Even with the recent pullback in supply chain, Körber continued to invest in the North American market. It just added two years to its growth trajectory, and it has continued to invest 5% to 6% in R&D and product development. That aspiration to really grow was a key differentiator.

What are your targets for growth?

Islam: Körber plans to grow significantly in the coming years. The space we operate in – specifically, parcel handling within supply chain – is half a billion dollars and could double by 2027.

We expect the majority of growth out of the North American market, given that some key accounts are based here, such as Amazon and UPS.

How does your prior engineering and business experience inform your market approach?

Islam: I come from a very different space. My background is more coming from a top-line, business-development mindset. GEA is a $5.5 billion firm providing engineering solutions for the food, beverage, and pharmaceuticals industries.

The needs of those customers are different but similar to that of supply chain. Topics like the industrial Internet of Things [IIoT], remote management, and digital twins still apply across different application areas.

Companies have started to recognize that these topics are increasingly what drive customer decision making in what suppliers they work with. They need to position themselves to capture that growth.

Körber invests in R&D, partnerships

Some readers may not be aware of how Körber is organized — can you clarify your unit’s mission?

Islam: Our immediate path and focus is to grow the top line within parcel handling. We’re a product supplier and are not looked at as an integration project supplier.

We provide individual solutions. We see an opportunity to become an integration partner for major companies because we have expertise and know-how in Europe that we plan to leverage into the North American market.

Another aspect of how we differentiate ourselves from competitors is digitalization. Our vision is “Market leadership through technology leadership.” Last year, Körber invested a significant portion of revenue to R&D in the digital space.

Several months ago, I was at the IMD institute in Switzerland. Executives looked at S-curves for two big topics – sustainability and digitalization – tsunamis moving into the next decade.

Companies today that are purely in the mechanical space need to pair with digital solutions. That’s what customers desire to address their pain points – labor shortages, quality of product delivery, downtime. Having hardware, software, an interface, and cloud-based analytics and controls on top of that is the ecosystem mindset.

Speaking of that mindset, Körber works with numerous robotics and automation suppliers. How do you pick the right partners to gain market leadership?

Islam: We have a whole group looking at targets. Körber is not afraid to invest and has an excellent track record for post-merger integration.

What are the white spots, and which of those white spots can we leverage to maximize growth?

We’re homing in on outfits that specialize in electrical engineering and controls to which we typically farm out projects for potential partnerships or acquisitions.

Integration is an integral piece. We need to look at mechanisms to have in-house functions that need to be streamlined for our customers.

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Tools and trends for supply chain automation

Have you seen any innovations in mail and parcel handling that you think are particularly promising?

Islam: Our 360-degree predictive maintenance system is data-driven. We sell the proactive program as an add-on, with 24/7 support in home offices to maximize uptime. Big accounts are starting to latch onto the idea of looking at machine failures in advance.

Körber’s Visicon singulator is AI-based and the industry standard in our space. VarioPick uses a robot arm for dynamic parcel picking, and its throughput rates are second to none.

At our tech headquarters in Nuremburg [Germany], I’ve witnessed firsthand some tests focusing on unloading, an area that was historically ignored until recently. We’re testing some technologies that can unload an entire truck into warehouse operations.

Singulator 360 from Korber Business Area Supply Chain.
The Visicon Singulator 360 uses AI. Source: Körber Business Area Supply Chain.

Economic pressures such as shifting e-commerce demand, labor shortages, and capital restraints have affected the entire supply chain. How is Körber positioning itself to serve customers amid these pressures?

Islam: Körber sees automation and digital solutions as the keys to future-proofing supply chain, positioning our clients for continued growth in an increasingly competitive economic landscape.

Automation and digitization help maximize uptime and insulate supply chain from market volatility caused by increased and rapidly changing customer demands, challenges in attracting and retaining labor, as well as geopolitical and economic pressures.

A commitment to innovation and staying ahead of the curve is truly central to Körber’s DNA, and we’re heavily investing in R&D to offer our customers the latest technologies and hardware that will keep their supply chain operations more nimble and responsive, as well as more economically and environmentally sustainable.

How does Körber stay focused on its value proposition amid the hype around AI?

Islam: For us, the priority to is to be customer-centric and to focus on customer problems and work backwards from those pain points rather than vice versa. Alternatively, suppliers will develop solutions that will not have market adoption.

If the specific-customer problem requires AI-based solutions, then Körber wants to be at the forefront of developing those solutions, paired with our mechanical solution, which is the essence of a complete ecosystem.

Are there any regional trends that you’ve observed? How do you see the markets for supply chain automation and services evolving in 2024?

Islam: Körber’s chief sales officer and I looked back at slides for growth plans in 2021. At the time, Asia-Pacific was seen as a double-digit growth market, whereas the U.S. was looked at as a mature market.

Now three years post-COVID, that has completely shifted. Investments in APAC have pivoted to the States, and Europe has stagnated. The U.S. economy has been resilient and rebounded faster from recession by half a year to a year in advance of what they hope to see in Europe.

Business in the U.S. is focused on situating its supply chain operations more regionally than abroad in a push for greater control and stability.

Are you seeing a rebound in orders?

Islam: In our space, we’ve already started to see a rebound. There had been significant pullback in the past 12 to 18 months, but now we’re starting to see customers release RFQs [requests for quotations] that in the back half of this year we see coming to fruition.

Editor’s note: John Santagate, vice president of robotics at Körber Supply Chain, will be participating in a panel on “The State of Warehouse Automation” at the Robotics Summit & Expo, which will be on May 1 and 2 at the Boston Convention and Exhibition Center. Registration is now open for the event.

Eugene Demaitre
Written by

Eugene Demaitre

Eugene Demaitre is editorial director of the robotics group at WTWH Media. He was senior editor of The Robot Report from 2019 to 2020 and editorial director of Robotics 24/7 from 2020 to 2023. Prior to working at WTWH Media, Demaitre was an editor at BNA (now part of Bloomberg), Computerworld, TechTarget, and Robotics Business Review.

Demaitre has participated in robotics webcasts, podcasts, and conferences worldwide. He has a master's from the George Washington University and lives in the Boston area.