Finding the gap in automated logistics

A fresh face in the logistics industry, Cohesio Group has been going from strength to strength since its initial inception in 2014.

Nishan Wijemanne, CEO of Cohesio Group decided that the logistics industry needed an influx of innovation, and this vision drove him to create Cohesio Group – a solutions-driven technology provider.

Wijemanne, who is originally from Christchurch in New Zealand first came to Australia in search of a new opportunity after working for Telecom New Zealand. Though at this time he was not familiar with the logistics industry, he was offered an opportunity at Dematic.

“I flew down to Sydney for an interview that lasted five hours and shortly afterwards I was offered a job in a sales capacity for Dematic in Brisbane, to build the region. It was an extensive learning curve for me, to understand the logistics industry, but I really loved it,” Wijemanne said.

In 18 – 24 months Nishan had grown his region to a four-million-dollar portfolio and in recognition of his success he was offered a role in Melbourne to soon after run the southern region sales team and then leading to an Australia and New Zealand role.

“Dematic is a great company, I had so much opportunity and really enjoyed working with the process improvement technology on offer at that time and also creating a high performing team,” Wijemanne said.

However, as his role developed further at Dematic and after a few executive changes, Wijemanne approached the then CEO at Dematic to discuss his vision for the future of automation and logistics.

“I really wanted to be at the cusp of technological innovation, I wanted to think about a longer-term strategy and also to look at how to go to market to mid-tier organisations that needed to replace manual processes and outdated tech with new tech and offer a scalable solution,” Wijemanne said.

Breaking down barriers

For Wijemanne, automation and robotics should not just be for huge businesses, there should be a cost-to-serve model or a monthly model to break the barrier to entry for the smaller organisations along with nimble solutions for the third-party logistics (3PL) space.

With this in mind, Wijemanne decided it was time to put that vision to the test and to form his own team, to create a solutions-driven and a partnership-centric organisation.

“I knew I needed a strong core to start off with: my best sales guy, my best tech guy and a guy with strong workflow implementation skills. So, I approached Yiau Hwei Chan as my tech specialist, Rizan Mawzoon as my sales specialist and Ravi Nath to pull it all together. The four of us formed the founding team for Cohesio,” Wijemanne said.

The original thought process behind Cohesio was that to tap into the thousands of organisations out there who were priced out by the big automation providers. If Cohesio was to just get a few of these then they would be able to develop a profitable, value adding business, Wijemanne says.

“Honestly when I pitched to Yiau Hwei and Rizan initially, it was on a napkin over lunch and we had the simple strategy to become a $3 to $4 million over the first five years,” Wijemanne says.

However, this isn’t how things turned out. Cohesio Group’s first customer was The Reject Shop. “In our first month, we landed a quarter of a million dollar project from The Reject Shop and at that time there were only two of us in the business,’ Wijemanne says.

This momentum didn’t slow down, with Cohesio taking Kmart as its second client and for the past five years Wijemanne is proud to report that the company has not lost one client and has rapidly grown into the largest player in their domain.

Cohesio first started in the voice technology sector. “When we first started out, the industry at large needed a change and an influx of innovation. There was a prevalent gap in the market for innovative tech solutions as well as an overall proposition. The industry had providers that offered traditional barcode scanning solutions and voice-based picking the old way, but the technology available was only affordable and adopted by large enterprise customers and the process was very long and costly to integrate, plus voice technology was not applied beyond picking operations such as inventory management and inspection and maintenance,” Wijemanne said.

Cohesio wanted to introduce a model that would not exclude organisations based on their size, output or stock keeping units (SKUs). “The larger providers in this space were not diversifying their business, they were just working on a retention strategy rather than a growth one,” Wijemanne said.

A central aspect of Wijemanne’s vision is the importance of building strong and meaningful partnerships.

“We established partnerships with both Honeywell and Zebra Technologies very early on.  These partnerships are now far and wide. What people would maybe traditionally see as competitors we see as opportunity,” Wijemanne said.

Cohesio Group believes in strong partnerships with industry suppliers as well customers and treated them at a level playing field. For Nishan, this has reduced the traditional boundaries that exist between various layers of relationships that businesses have and he believes that this kind of mindset has allowed Cohesio to acquire customers like Kmart and The Reject Shop in its first quarter of operation.

The company now has a number of global partnerships in place. Including Geek+ in China and Voiteq, a Körber Logistics company throughout North America and Europe.

Next steps

More recently, Nishan and his team have been exploring ways in which robotics can transform logistics operations, specifically focussing on Autonomous Mobile Robots (AMRs).

“Three years ago we got to a great place in terms of financial and team stability and Cohesio became not just an tech integrator but also a software development house with a team that helped us build our own IP. It was then that I started to detach myself from the day to day and started to look at other ways to innovate,” Wijemanne said.

Wijemanne started to visit the US to look at what was happening in the logistics space over there.

“There is so much innovation in the US, I spent a lot of time over there to try and see what opportunities there were for collaboration. But people were very quick to say that the Australian market was too small and too far away,” Wijemanne said.

However, what Wijemanne says they failed to realise is that Australia has one of the highest costs of labour in the world, meaning that it was the perfect market to move towards this type of lower-cost automation.

“After the US visit I came across Geek+ and engaged them in Beijing and we recently deployed our first-ever AMR operation for a major player here in Australia,” Wijemanne said.

A focus for Cohesio will be to ensure that organisations don’t see robotics as too expensive. “We are trying to be creative to show them that there isn’t a barrier to entry anymore. If you are big or small we have an offering for you. We work with customers with $20-30 million turnover and also $400-500 million,” he explained.

For Wijemanne a major differentiator for Cohesio is that the solutions that they create are flexible, agile and scalable. “We don’t walk away, we work together with our business partners to come up with a compelling solution whatever the size of the business,” Wijemanne said.

The first deployment of the Cohesio and Geek+ solution went live in December 2018 in Melbourne, and already the organisation are experiencing impressive efficiency gains. “The company went from 25 pickers to three – that’s a significant labour saving,” Wijemanne said. Since then, Cohesio are engaged on numerous other implementation projects.

Wijemanne and the Cohesio team worked closely with these companies to show that it’s not about machines replacing humans but about upskilling and utilising skills elsewhere in the business.

“One of the key messages on this project was that this technology is to be embraced alongside humans. And it needs to be embraced for organisations to really grow. It’s not about cutting jobs it’s about shipping faster and more efficiency,” he said.

Another technology that Wijemanne thinks will be able to offer cost-effective solutions for the logistics industry is Android voice. “Traditional voice picking software is run on proprietary hardware, but with Android it can be run on any device which allows an opportunity for a monthly model or a Software-as-a-Service model.” The Go-To-Market here is unique to Cohesio’s development of ignito, an Android integration platform, which is a game changer for enabling scalable and cost-effective voice based workflows.

Shared success

Wijemanne attributes much of the success of Cohesio to the team he has worked hard to create. “It’s a bit like a band and I’m the frontman, people pat me on the back but really it’s the entire team that make things happen,” Wijemanne said.

He has spent a lot of time building a highly capable team of professionals. “Our team is the most experienced and best of breed when it comes to enterprise mobility and related technologies,” Wijemanne said.

Most recently with the appointment of Darren O’Conner as head of operations. Nishan first met O’Conner on Cohesio’s first project as at this time O’Conner was chief information officer at The Reject Shop. “Darren is a giant in the industry with a massive footprint marked by his wealth of knowledge, humble personality and innovative problem-solving skills. He adds an element of stability to internal processes and has already made clear his intentions to begin refining some of our key processes,” Wijemanne said.

Cohesio has spent a lot of time creating a collaborative environment and fun culture which nurtures creation and innovation. “We give our team the launch pad to create their own success and identity,” Wijemanne said.

This environment has now led to people approaching Cohesio for opportunities globally. “It’s great to get people handing us their CV because they see us an employer of choice and Cohesio as a company that they can truly engage in innovative technologies and solutions,” Wijemanne said.