Walmart testing autonomous shelf-scanning robots
Walmart testing autonomous shelf-scanning robots

Walmart testing autonomous shelf-scanning robots

Following a successful initial trial, multinational retailer Walmart is rolling out its autonomous robots to perform shelf-scanning duties at a further 50 stores.

The scale of repetitive, predictable processes in retail stores, warehouses and supply chain operations makes them perfect candidates for automation. Walmart has been quick off the mark in recognizing this, with its use of inventory checking drones in distribution centres, and its initial testing of robots in Arkansas, Pennsylvania and California. It’s now looking to expand its rollout to stores across the US.

Walmart is the world’s largest company by revenue (approximately $480 billion, according to the Fortune Global 500 list last year), as well as the largest private employer, with 2.3 million employees. As such, there are potentially billions of dollars in efficiency savings to be had by increasing automation.

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The Walmart scanning robot

The retailer’s monolithic-looking robot sits at its charging station until called upon. It then performs several scanning duties as it negotiates its way around the store – including recording out-of-stock items, incorrect prices and erroneous or missing labels. Once the robot has completed its task, it forwards its findings to Walmart employees, so that they can respond to the issues the robot highlights.

The robots were designed and produced by California-based Bossa Nova Robotics, with technology developed over the last five years.

Walmart is keen to emphasize the robots’ benefits to both the consumer and the company’s employees. The machine’s regular scanning duties mean that stock levels are more accurately maintained, broadening the range of products available to online customers. It also helps personal shoppers fulfil orders.

John Crecelius, Wal-Mart US vice president of central operations spoke to the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette about the initiative. “If you think about trying to go through a facility with all these different [items] and figure out if your prices are accurate, it can be very time-consuming,” Crecelius points out. “Then to try to figure out what to do about it. Imagine how much time you’ve lost in doing all that.”

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Employees to miss out?

While the potential time savings are clear to see, with automation comes the fear that blue and pink-collar workers will lose their jobs. Last year, Wal-Mart installed cash recycler machines in its stores and invoicing operations, leading to the removal of around 7,000 positions in-store.

Walmart maintains that this will not be the case in this instance. By having its robot perform the repetitive but vital shelf-scanning duties, store associates are freed-up to better assist customers and sell merchandise.

The programme will be informed by feedback from store associates and customers, in the belief that this will ensure a solution that’s beneficial for all parties. There are also big data benefits to be gained. The information collected can be further analysed to identify opportunities and issues in each store or region.

Read more: MIT researchers develop drone inventory system, RFly

Walmart and IoT

Walmart’s August announcement on its partnership with Google to offer personalised voice shopping – a platform that went live earlier this month – is further evidence of the company’s predilection for innovation. By linking their Walmart account to Google Express, customers can receive recommendations based on their purchase history, both in-store and online. Google’s recently released Home Mini and Amazon’s new Echo devices mean hands-free experiences, including shopping, are more accessible than ever.

Walmart’s use of drones, robotics and other innovations reveals a clear strategy of using the latest technology to streamline retail and purchasing processes. I have no doubt that their introduction will introduce efficiency improvements, but this enthusiasm is tempered with concern for the security of the world’s largest workforce.