Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, retailers were under pressure to keep up with rapidly evolving supply chains and customer habits. Not only have payment methods and support services changed, but inventory and logistics functions are also shifting. These developments are encouraging both brick-and-mortar and e-commerce companies to look to artificial intelligence and robotics in retail.
From groceries and consumer electronics to apparel and pharmaceuticals, all retail sectors are hyper-competitive today. Both online and physical stores are seeking greater levels of efficiency, customer satisfaction, and employee retention.
For robotics developers and suppliers to serve these needs, they need to understand how their software, sensors, and hardware designs will be used. The market for robotics in retail is just starting with the biggest companies first, so providers must avoid costly missteps and prepare both for scale and eventual adoption by smaller retailers. Safety and ease of use are key to designs that will be successful.
Robotics in Retail Depends on Software, Data
Retailers such as Amazon.com and Walmart are already using mobile robots in their warehouses and retail stores for functions including inventory scanning, materials handling, and cleaning. For automated guided vehicles (AGVs) and autonomous mobile robots (AMRs) to be useful, they need operating systems and data-collection and data-analysis tools that are robust and compatible with existing retail systems.
Autonomous service and delivery robots are poised to better serve – and possibly save – retailers. Some industry analysts have predicted that robotics in retail will be involved in more than three-quarters of logistics operations, with McKinsey estimating that autonomous vehicles will make up 85% of deliveries by 2025.
This report primarily looks at Amazon.com as an example retailer, Brain Corp as a software provider, and Bossa Nova Robotics as a hardware supplier of robotics in retail.
Amazon Creates a Category with Kiva Systems
Amazon‘s purchase of Kiva Systems helped create the warehouse robot category, because it took Kiva’s mobile robots off the market for its own order-fulfillment operations.
At one 1 million-sq.-ft. distribution center, Amazon Robotics’ systems transport inventory stored in racks. These AMRs can efficiently carry payloads up to 750 lb. as they maneuver around and throughout the warehouse.
As orders are received, robots move goods from shelving to bins, and then from bins into boxes (the size of which is suggested by AI). Inventory is then transported to stationary workers at various staging points in the warehouse. Workers then place items into the boxes. Robots deliver the boxes and shelving to the proper destinations and then directly to waiting delivery vehicles.
Amazon has deployed thousands of robots in dozens of distribution centers across the U.S., and other retailers have followed suit by partnering with other suppliers of robotics in retail. The company is also working with corporate and academic partners to support innovation and bring it to market quickly.
For instance, Fabric (formerly CommonSense Robotics) last October raised $110 million as it works to automate micro-fulfillment centers.
Brain Corp Brings OS to Multiple Functions
As robotics in retail evolves, so too must the software stack for navigation, perception, human-machine interaction, and back-end systems. San Diego-based Brain Corp‘s BrainOS provides autonomy to a variety of systems using machine learning and computer vision.
“Brain Corp offers systems that include cleaning, inventory management, and materials handling robots,” said Phil Duffy, vice president of innovation and product management at Brain Corp. “Much of the focus of the company is on being a software and technology provider, which adds value for customers.”
Inventory management is a key part of the digital transformation of retail, according to ABI Research. Stores need close to 100% accuracy, and stock counts are typically labor-intensive, it said.
One notable partnership is with Ahold Delhaize, a large, international grocer. Ahold’s subsidiaries, which include Giant Foods, Martin’s, and Stop & Shop supermarkets, are deploying about 500 robots. Badger Technologies’ Marty is a 6-ft.-tall robot with a nonthreatening design and googly eyes that roams aisles looking for spills and alerting workers of hazards.
Badger Technologies is a division of Jabil that said it offers end-to-end systems, including robots and software for inventory, store integration, maintenance, and analytics.
Bossa Nova Robotics Provides Needed Intelligence
Bossa Nova Robotics’ mobile robots gather data, but they are not surveillance robots. They see people only as a digitized outline for obstacle avoidance, which also involves lidar, machine vision, and multiple 2D and 3D cameras. The main use for robotics in retail here is for inventory management.
San Francisco-based Bossa Nova, which spun out of Carnegie Mellon University’s Robotics Institutee, claims that retailers lose $26 billion per year because customers can’t always purchase items they want. As of last year, the company’s products were in over 350 retail stores in the U.S. and Europe. Walmart has been a leader in using Bossa Nova Robotics’ systems for inventory management, recently expanding deployment to 1,000 stores. Bossa Nova’s mobile robots can be deployed as a service, and a data plan can be structured around a retailer’s needs.
As robots move around the store, they can capture data and images of shelf items, process information about the number of items and contents on shelves, and transmit this information to human team members.
A Means of Differentiation
Albertsons, Best Buy, JD.com, Kroger, Lowes, and Ocado are examples of forward-thinking companies moving beyond trials to leverage the power of robotics in retail. Simbe Robotics‘ Tally is another example of how robots can provide inventory information in real time. The company is working with three major global consumer goods manufacturers to identify stock levels and optimization opportunities.
The novel coronavirus has accelerated the industry’s transformation in reaction to competitive pressures, the need to make best use of human workers, and the desire for new and enhanced customer experiences, noted ABI Research. Just as restaurants and hospitals are moving from considering automation to rapid adoption, so too are online and physical retail stores.
Customer-service and delivery robots can also be a way for retailers to differentiate themselves. With innovations in interoperability, autonomy, mobility, and interfaces for staffers and customers, robotics in retail can fulfill its promise of helping companies be more efficient and profitable.