As robots begin to appear in grocery stores, several robotics suppliers are vying for market share with different approaches to hardware, data, and scaling up. Grocery chain Giant Eagle Inc. this month began a pilot program with Simbe Robotics Inc.’s Tally inventory robots.
Giant Eagle is deploying Tally to stores in the Pittsburgh, Cleveland, and Akron, Ohio, areas. Pittsburgh-based Giant Eagle is one of the largest food retailers and distributors in the U.S., with about $8.9 billion in annual sales. It has more than 250 stores in four states.
Tally captures data on inventory levels and whether products are on the correct shelves. With its cloud-based software and application programming interface (API), Simbe Robotics said it can deliver actionable data to retailers worldwide.
The autonomous mobile robot can operate safely around people during regular store hours, enabling employees to focus on customer service and restocking items, said Simbe. A majority of retailers struggle with managing inventory, according to Industry Dive.
Tally design principles
Part of the challenge for San Francisco-based Simbe and its customers is getting people accustomed to robots moving around them.
“Much of what the average consumer knows about robotics is from [iRobot’s] Roomba or what they’ve seen in the movies,” said Brad Bogolea, co-founder and CEO of Simbe Robotics. “When they see [an acrobatic] Boston Dynamics robot on CNN and then see a robot that’s not well designed in a hotel or a grocery store, it could cause a backlash.”
“Thinking about human-robot interaction and how we can make this technology intuitive and approachable becomes incredibly important,” he told The Robot Report. “That piece is often an afterthought.”
“The design principles around Tally’s form factor, lights, and sounds are to blend seamlessly and not impede customer or employee behavior,” Bogolea explained. “We designed the LCD display so that the eyes move in the direction of the robot. We wanted the display to be interactive and informative.”
“There’s a bit of a surprise when someone sees Tally but hasn’t heard about it in the news,” he noted. “However, some clients have been very proactive on community engagement. Schnucks and [French grocer] Casino have done great public relations work.”
“Now that Giant Eagle’s deployment is public, the robots are branded, and there is signage telling people what they’re doing,” Bogolea said.
Keeping up with tech
“A lot of Simbe’s technology team came out of Willow Garage and worked with ROS [the Robot Operating System] and other research platforms,” said Bogolea. “One of the great things we had to our advantage was this experience going into our products.”
“We’re listening to our clients and are not taking a shotgun approach to robots,” he said. “Simbe is focused on physical robots capturing data.”
Although Bogolea said he doesn’t see Tally’s form factor changing much in the near future, Simbe Robotics is keeping up with the latest cameras and lidar sensors, GPUs, and software.
“Today, we have a hybrid approach — the autonomy stack and computer vision stack are on the robot,” he said. “Data capture and preprocessing occurs on the edge, with post-processing in the cloud.”
“One of the unique things about our autonomous experience is that we’ve driven 15,000 miles in stores,” said Bogolea. “We have expertise in managing robots running all over the world, and there’s the sheer volume of hundreds of millions of products and tags we’ve analyzed.”
“Something unique to our use case in the robotics ecosystem is dealing with a tsunami of information and making it accessible to the retailer,” he said. “That’s different from robotics focused purely on function.”
Teaming with Tally
“Giant Eagle and Simbe have been working together quietly for quite some time,” said Bogolea. “They reached out shortly after we announced Tally on the market.”
“Giant Eagle spent a significant amount of time working on the business case,” he added. “Its executives know the missed opportunities for not having product on the shelves, and Giant Eagle was one of the first retailers to prove the value of Tally.”
In the pilot, Tally sends reports about inventory levels and whether products are on the correct shelves to store teams every 30 minutes.
“For stores of 100,000 to 150,000 square feet, one robot is usually sufficient,” Bogolea explained. “Tally scans the store three times per day — once in the morning to validate restocking and promotions, once in the afternoon to validate drawdowns and out-of-stock items that can be rectified before the evening rush, and once in the evening to inform re-stockers.”
“Tally is designed to ‘set it and forget it,’ since grocers are not set up to maintain robots,” he said. “They can autonomously perform scans and return to their charging docks.”
“Giant Eagle has fully integrated this data with its first-line workers,” said Bogolea. “Its managers are evaluating how it can leverage this data with the rest of the enterprise. They can start to determine if a problem starts with the store team or further up the supply chain.”
More robots, competition coming
“Most of the publicly announced robots — such as Marty — are just mapping stores,” claimed Bogolea, referring to Ahold Delhaize’s rollout of robots from Jabil unit Badger Technologies to 500 stores. “They’re not yet doing inventory work today.”
“We’re all eager to get more robots out there, and there is value for more robotics use cases,” he said. “We’re looking at shelf integrity and layout — planogram design — as well as spill hazard detection versus shelf help.”
“We have more than a dozen retail relationships worldwide, including with Decathlon,” Bogolea said. “With SoftBank’s Brightstar subsidiary, we’re leveraging its capabilities for our go-to-market strategy across Asia. We’ve learned a lot during our deployments.”
“For example, at Decathlon, we’re using RFID,” Bogolea said. “Today, our core focus is on packaged goods, and we’re looking at getting into healthcare and guaranteeing quality of produce.”
While many startups have focused on raising venture capital, Simbe Robotics has focused on longer-term funding, Bogolea said.
“We’re developing a solution for the global market, and we continue to have lots of great interest from partners and analysts,” he said. “We’re scaling up production and are actively deploying new units every week.”
Earlier this month, Walmart Inc. announced that it was expanding its use of autonomous mobile robots from Bossa Nova Robotics Inc. from 50 to 350 stores. However, Bogolea saw this more as validation than a competitive threat.
“Think of the size of the retail opportunity — robots are applicable to 500,000 stores. That’s a $25 billion annual market that’s still mostly manual and needs better data,” Bogolea said. “We think this market will support 20,000 to 25,000 units in the next five years. Some of the biggest retailers might deploy multiple robots.”
“There are multiple players, and some jumped on the technology early, but there will be a clear No. 1 in this space,” he said. “We’re super excited about our potential to capture a large market share.”