How robots are revolutionizing retail

Robots are quietly entering your local Walmart
14 January 2020

Robots are the building blocks of tomorrow’s retail. Source: AFP

In the world of retail, perhaps no players are more forthright in the adoption of robust, transformative technology than Walmart.

Announced yesterday, Bossa Nova Robotics will be bringing its shelf-scanning inventory robots to 1,000 Walmart stores across the US, with aims to eliminate the tedious task for store workers.

Earlier this month, meanwhile, it was indicated that the firm would be future-proofing its supercenters with edge computing technology, while the retail giant is also testing robots, dubbed ‘Alphabot’, that can pick up and fulfill grocery orders with greater speed and accuracy.

“By assembling and delivering orders to associates, Alphabot is streamlining the order process, allowing associates to do their jobs with greater speed and efficiency,” said Brian Roth, Senior Manager of Pickup Automation and Digital Operations for Walmart US. 

“Ultimately, this will lower dispense times, increase accuracy and improve the entirety of online grocery. And it will help free associates to focus on service and selling, while the technology handles the more mundane, repeatable tasks.”

Alphabot seems a novel solution, but it’s just one solution of many from retail firms that are exploring how robotics can reduce labor costs and make supply-chain processes more efficient in the shadow of tech giant Amazon.

Another notable case study of robotics and automation in the industry is Ocado’s automated warehouse. The online grocery store’s factory in Andover, UK is a prototype for its vision of a network of fully-automated fulfillment centers. 

The operation aims to optimize space by storing items in stacked crates up to 17 boxes high. The location of goods may seem at random but are algorithmically decided. Frequently accessed products are placed on top and rarer purchases are at the bottom. On top of this platform, robots pick up ordered goods with a set of claws, while all actions are orchestrated by a centralized computer. 

The automated warehouse handles about 10 percent of Ocado’s £1.5 billion (US$1.9 billion) annual UK turnover, processing up to 3.5 million items or 65,000 orders per week. The grocery firm even has a dedicated arm for developing commercial solutions in robotics, AI and IoT. 

In Tokyo, meanwhile, clothing brand Uniqlo has replaced 90 percent of workers at its flagship warehouse with robots, and is ready to take another step towards automation. 

Due to a shortage of manual workers, the world’s second-largest fashion retailer has invested US$909 million to revamp its Tokyo warehouses and seek solutions to deal with the shortage crisis. Coming to the rescue, Japanese robotics startup Mujin has developed a two-armed robot with 3D vision that can fold and box clothes. The robot uses suction hands to pick up plastic-wrapped clothing and arranges them neatly inside a box, ready to be shipped. 

To date, Fast Retailing (Uniqlo’s parent company) is aiming to automate all factories with its Tokyo warehouse operating 24 hours a day. Similar operations are expected to deploy in other locations around the world.