How the pandemic helped QikPod turn its journey around to build robots

QikPod offers a seamless ‘Shop Online, Pickup Here’ value proposition that removes last mile bottlenecks and inconvenience for the customer. It installs and operates pods at common locations within apartments, offices, educational institutions, and corporate campuses.
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As a startup investor and mentor, Ravi Gururaj had witnessed the large-scale deployment of lockers across China and Europe. And he felt this was a core missing element in the last mile segment in India. Across the US as well, the number of locker points for ecommerce parcel delivery is growing rapidly and the market potential is massive. 

This led to the birth of QikPod in Bengaluru, a startup that offers a seamless ‘Shop Online, Pickup Here’ value proposition that removes the last mile bottlenecks and inconvenience for the customer, retailer, delivery personnel and also facilities and security staff. QikPod installs and operates pods at common locations within apartments, offices, educational institutions, and corporate campuses. 

The pandemic has also accelerated robotics product innovations by QikPod. The startup plans to launch the "world's most space, time, and cost-efficient nano-warehouse for last-mile customer fulfilment" via a "Robot as a Service" model. There is a wide range of use cases and industries globally, including self-service parcel delivery, big-box curb side pickups, and high street retail click and collect. And this new robot only augments the company's existing smart locker "Shop Online. Pickup Here" value proposition.

Starting with lockers 

The QikPod team had initially started with the assumption that lockers will grow rapidly, becoming an integral part of last-mile infrastructure in India as well. However, according to Ravi, compared to ecommerce businesses, their infrastructure play will take a relatively longer gestational period and more repeated experiential education of customers and integration efforts from partners

Taking delivery from a locker vs. in-person requires awareness and adaptation by the customer to new delivery modes. This was the case in China and Europe where steady education, deployment, and integration into third party logistics (3PL) flows is now ensuring widespread adoption, high use frequency, and attractive monetisation. 

These lockers serve as a secure, self-service device into which parcels can be temporarily placed around the clock for recipients to pick up at their convenience using a simple smartphone app or an SMS OTP. Delivery executives can drop off dozens of parcels in a single visit and do not need to spend valuable time contacting and waiting for the customer. 

For retailers and 3PL delivery service providers, this leads to significant time savings and cost efficiencies, and unlocks optimum value in the last mile. Lockers also offer a more sustainable delivery model for the future through a dramatic decrease in delivery trips and environmental impact.

“We  had anticipated the need for a concerted long run buildout effort, hence raised sufficient funding in our first round from a terrific group of angel investors, Foxconn, Delhivery, and our major shareholders Flipkart and Accel Partners, which provides us financial stability and the necessary multi-year runway to win in the long term,” says Ravi. 

The impact of the pandemic 

The pandemic certainly hit QikPod very hard. They went from a company actively adding cities to the network and beginning monetisation activities via partners to a fully locked down network pan India, with all operations suspended, and zero revenue status overnight in March 2020. Unfortunately, there has been little respite from these challenges over the past two years through three waves of covid. 

“The hundreds of IT parks and complexes we had installed lockers in were essentially ghost facilities with work from home becoming universal. Residential buildings instituted new safety rules preventing delivery and field staff from entering through the gates to access our lockers. Even the safety and health issues of our own field team impaired our operations. While many logistics companies that transported goods and made deliveries enjoyed growth during the pandemic, we were locked inside the gates of our own host locations,” quips Ravi. 

This unprecedented turn of events also meant that their target user - the normally busy and unavailable ecommerce customer - was suddenly available 24x7 at home, ready to receive deliveries directly themselves. 

“The pandemic is a global macro phenomenon and there is little we could do to change those adverse dynamics by ourselves. As soon as we witness a true return to work by employees into large facilities and corporate parks, we will restart our network across India, starting with our home city of Bangalore and other cities in a phased manner. We are hopeful that starting the summer of 2022, the macro environment will support a true return to offices. Despite the repeated waves of adversities, we remained focused on building and delivering seamless last mile solutions for the customer,” says Ravi. 

With that in mind, the team decided to focus their efforts on what was within their control as they waited out the unpredictable pandemic, and invested in the research and development of a new product to build a next-generation parcel delivery robot offering.

Ravi Gururaj

The QikPod Cube  

“This had been contemplated as an eventual goal early in the company’s inception, with the pandemic now accelerating our efforts. Our goal was to build an automation solution that would fulfill a range of end-use scenarios and be simple, cost efficient to deploy and attractive to a global customer base,” says Ravi.

The QikPod Cube is designed to be the world's most space, time, and cost-efficient nano-warehouse for last-mile customer fulfillment. The modular nature of each Cube allows the team to flexiblly configure deployments to serve a wide range of use cases and industries globally, including parcel delivery, big-box curb side pickups, and high street retail, and click and collect use cases.

The QikPod Cube is built to store huge number of parcels/SKUs where users can drop and pick up parcels from a single kiosk window and the robot takes care of identifying, dimensioning, retrieving, stacking, and sorting all parcels very efficiently. Each parcel received by the robot is mapped to a unique secure code, which ensures zero error management of the parcel within the robot. The entire process is  dynamic and enables real-time tracking of parcels both for end-users and partner businesses. 

“Technically, building a robot of this nature and scale requires a lot of interdisciplinary skills so our engineering team, by necessity, combines talent from mechanical, robotics, mechatronics, and software engineering in addition to the staff who handle business development, marketing, finance/admin, field operations, and customer support,” says Ravi

While deploying their  smart locker network, they were approached with use cases where the parcel volumes were high and where there was a demand for a “cost-effective, high-density parcel storage and retrieval solution.”

For the robotic product, an in-house engineering team and external expertise, where relevant, were leveraged, and the designing and virtual simulation of product functionality were tackled in the first phase, informs Ravi.  

Building the robots 

“Fabrication and assembly of the first version of the product was a long cycle as it involved engaging with vendors, onboarding them, and setting up the processes for sourcing materials and components from the reliable suppliers. Taking continuous development and rapid prototyping approach, we were able to enhance both software and hardware features. It also helped us in choosing the right materials, making the system modular, easy to install, and value engineering to reduce the final cost,” says Ravi. 

The team has  now manufactured their third iteration of the robot. Ravi adds they will deploy their robots at pilot sites this year, after which they will seek to deploy at scale across international markets via strategic partnerships. 

Other startups in the space include - Dunzo, Zepto, and Instamart to name a few. However, most of the competitors provide warehouse management and automation solutions, which are suitable for large manufacturing facilities. 

The QikPod team’s  focus is on the last mile and consumer-facing solutions that large retailers, big-box retailers and ecommerce companies can cost-effectively deploy to help them decentralise their inventory and set up self-service fulfilment centres at both their store locations and also in close proximity to their customers. 

According to Ravi, another key difference is that QikPod is not focused on motion robotics (AGV, AMR, etc.) or pick and place robotics (KUKA), which he says, is the core value proposition of the competitors. 

“What we offer is a much simpler robot that helps in organising, stacking parcels/SKUs efficiently and retrieving them at a lighting speed, with the click of a button. Our customers benefit by saving cost on labour, real estate, and reverse logistics. Most importantly, it helps in directly addressing customer pain points and offering shorter delivery times to the customer,” Ravi says. 

The market and future  

QikPod’s existing clients and partners include large property developers and corporates operating campus-scale facilities, and third-party logistics companies across India. 

“The robotics offering will target a brand new international geographic market where we will offer our robots on “Robot as a Service” opex driven model, which is a combination of a one-time installation fee combined with a monthly subscription fee that includes rent, maintenance, and support components for the duration of the commitment term,” explains Ravi. 

Clients can choose to customise solutions based on parameters like the number of parcels to be stored, integration with AGVs, external conveyor systems, and additional user kiosks. The actual monthly fee may vary based on specific configuration and customisations chosen. 

Going by estimates, the team expects that customers can deploy fully automated base unit robots for as low as a thousand dollars a month per unit, which will be capable of handling and storing over a hundred parcels concurrently. 

QikPod’s target customers include big-box retailers who will use the product to gain efficiency in curb side pickup and nano fulfillment long-tail inventory management, ecommerce companies who will use the solution to set up dark store facilities in dense urban locations, and self-service delivery hubs placed in proximity to end customers, as well as real estate facilities management companies who seek to streamline mailroom operations and automate the parcel management process at locations they manage.

On future plans, Ravi says, “Our near-term plans are to resume deliveries to our network of lockers once office campuses reopen and to pilot QikPod Cube with partners in India. We will also leverage strategic partnerships to enter the US and European regions, which are our primary target markets. We are confident in our long-term value proposition and envision a world where every major building and campus offers automated parcel storage, retrieval, and delivery robotics as a basic amenity. We plan for QikPod to be a significant leader and provider of the technologies that drive this last-mile logistics automation opportunity.”

Edited by Anju Narayanan

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