Bpost CEO Jean-Paul Van Avermaet was in Roosendaal just over the Dutch border yesterday to inaugurate a brand-new warehouse created by subsidiary Active Ants to service webshops.
Active Ants started as a fulfilment centre in 2010, and grew with the explosion in e-commerce in the decade that followed. According to estimates, 16% of European companies with more than ten employees have a webshop – and in Belgium the figure goes up to 21%.
Since then the company, of which 75% was acquired by Bpost in 2018, is now one of the major hubs for e-commerce in Europe.
The warehouse in Roosendaal covers 20,000 square metres of ground – the size of 75 tennis courts – but is eerily devoid of people. The reason is because the warehouse is run by robots.
A large part of the ‘staff’ is made up of 65 robots working on the floor, about the height and form of a piano stool, which bring empty boxes to a human staff member. Another 40 robots ride on a track seven metres above ground, taking the required items from a wall of compartments and bringing them back to the dispatcher.
The robots get their orders from the computer. And they find their way around thanks to a grid of QR codes on the floor which allows them to be moved around like chess pieces in the most efficient way possible, while avoiding collisions.
“What you see here is technologically unique in the world,” said Jeroen Dekker, who founded Active Ants in 2010 together with Jan Lahaye.
“The system stores up to six times more stock per square metre than a traditional fulfilment centre. And the robots reuse their own energy, which means that the electricity consumption is minimal.”
The centre has 250 clients, operates seven days a week and employs 400 humans. The company has been growing 30% a year, and the Roosendaal warehouse is expected to handle two million packages next year – though it has capacity for eight million.
“This parcel shipping company will be the blueprint for more centres in Europe,” said Van Avermaet.
“With our American e-commerce subsidiary Radial, we are focussing on large companies. With Active Ants we want to do the same for SMEs, a growing market.”
Bpost is now planning with Active Ants to open new warehouses in the new year in Belgium and in Germany. The Belgian site will be in Boom in Antwerp province, where Bpost already has a warehouse covering 8,000 square metres, less that half the size of the Roosendaal location. The Boom warehouse will be equipped with similar technology, a spokesperson said.