Can Delivery and Service Robots Save Retail?

Robotics Business Review

Smart robots are taking on a widening range of tasks, creating opportunities for retailers to improve productivity and enhance the customer experience. Delivery and service robots (and drones) are designed to work autonomously in warehouses, store backrooms, and even in store aisles, handling things formerly done by humans.

This combination of next-generation inventory tracking, warehouse automation, and robotics helps to make supply chain management and e-commerce order fulfillment more effective. Retailers can thus increase their efficiency, productivity — and ultimately — profitability.

For example, at Amazon’s 1 million-square-foot distribution center, Kiva robots transport inventory stored in shelves inside large racks throughout the warehouse. These service robots can carry payloads up to 750 pounds as they maneuver throughout the warehouse.

This fulfillment process is a highly organized and synchronized marvel of technology. As retailers’ orders are received, goods are moved from shelving to bins, and then from bins into boxes (the size of which is suggested by artificial intelligence).

Inventory is transported to stationary workers at various staging points in the warehouse. Human workers then place items into the boxes, and service robots deliver the boxes and shelving to the proper destinations and then directly to waiting delivery vehicles.

According to TechCrunch, Amazon accounts for 49.1% of online retail spending and 5% of all retail spending in the U.S., so the “Amazon effect” of other companies following its example is substantial.

At the same time, finding expert staffers is still a hurdle to service robotics adoption, even as Amazon hires fewer seasonal workers.

Walmart expands service robots use

Another example is Walmart, which has expanded its robot program to 50 stores across the country. Its inventory robots, from Bossa Nova Robotics, move around at a leisurely 2-3 miles per hour three times a day.

The robots roam the aisles scanning for incorrect prices, out-of-stock inventory, and wrong or missing labels. They notify employees of the status of inventory levels, errors, and pending out-of-stock issues.

Failure to keep items in stock costs retailers $634 billion annually, reported IHL Group. Providers of service robots such as Bossa Nova and Fellow Robots aim to remedy that.

Walmart staffers have found that Bossa Nova’s robots can help identify items that need to be expedited for delivery by trucks to retailers.

The systems can identify stock reorder and replenishment issues faster than precious methods. Walmart is also working with Alert Innovation’s Alphabot, which picks grocery orders. It is testing them at a store in New Hampshire.

These service robots are often more efficient than employees performing similar tasks, according to the retailer. They free up workers so they can spend more time interacting with customers.

In fact, the benefits of this process go beyond productivity improvements and can help improve the overall customer experience. As John Crecelius, vice president of innovation at Walmart, noted, “this has largely been about how we improve our performance and improve our service to our customers.”

Walmart has even filed a patent application for a drone that would lead customers to products they’re seeking.

Simbe Robotics works with consumer goods makers

Simbe Robotics’ Tally service robot has also been involved in in-store pilots. In this case, Simbe partnered with Advantage Digital Technologies to scan store shelves three times a day in test stores. As part of this evaluation, Simbe worked with three major global consumer goods manufacturers to identify stock levels and inventory optimization opportunities.

The test included the collection of real-time shelf data, which was then contextualized into actionable information and findings designed to enhance the overall shopper experience. An on-board computer vision system scanned various products on the shelves, and it then analyzed the images.

“Our experience with Tally has demonstrated the ability for this technology to capture data at a granularity and a frequency not previously possible,” said David Cortese, president of Advantage Digital Technologies. “We are extremely impressed with the quality and accuracy of the information Tally yields and the imminent opportunity for our clients to garner deeper insights on store conditions and improve the consumer’s shopping experience.”

“Advantage will continue its collaboration with Simbe in exploring the deployment of Tally at additional retailers,” he added.

Robots in logistics to grow

In addition to retailers, logistics companies such as DHL, FedEx, and UPS have been experimenting with the use of robots and drones to handle and deliver parcels. This desire to move goods quickly and efficiently is a key reason the market estimate for service and delivery robots for logistics exceeded $1 billion in 2016.

For instance, grocer Kroger and autonomous vehicle company Nuro started delivering groceries in Scottsdale, Ariz., this summer.

At the same time, businesses in other industries, such as restaurants, pharmacies, and healthcare organizations, can benefit from autonomous mobile robots in the same ways, improving efficiency and providing better customer service.

Delivery and service robots are poised to better serve – and possibly save – retailers.

Some industry predictions indicate that over three-quarters of future retail deliveries will include elements of autonomous operation. McKinsey estimates that autonomous vehicles will make up 85% of such deliveries by 2025.

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