No, robots aren’t selling shirts yet, but that day might come. They are being used frequently these days, however, to handle inventory warehousing tasks which has to be a daunting task for humans.
And, most recently, they are being tried out in moving along retail store shelves to determine when items need to be restocked – another time-consuming task for humans. One of the most important supply-chain needs at the present time is in quickly keeping track of inventory and ensuring adequate supplies in stock in order to meet e-commerce needs, including those of companies like Walmart that are initiating online ordering and in-store pick-up. Other companies have guaranteed rapid home delivery, a service that also requires adequate stocking and quick restocking in order for the efficiencies to work properly. Thus warehousing and merchandising rules are being blurred as retail chains try to figure out the best ways of making sure that adequate quantities of needed goods are in the store and where their storage is located. Inventories located inside the retail outlets as well as those in warehousing space are now able to be frequently interchanged with the latest robotic process of having shelf-scanning robots roam store aisles and send restocking data back through the network. The managing director of Europe’s Bossa Nova Robotics Inc. says that his company, who produces and provides these robots, is giving stores a real-time actual image of their product layouts in the stores twice or three times a day. This is more extensive than an army of humans, deployed on the same task, could provide. The autonomous robots are being used in a pilot at 50 Walmart stores currently. This new development is particularly significant in light of the fact that more than 75% of respondents in a recent survey indicated that they aren’t able to track inventory in real time. And 55% of those don’t have a single-oriented view of product levels across distribution channels. To date, most retailers that were engaged in e-commerce as well as retail outlets have operated the two entities separately – frequently causing situations where inventory is either too extensive, or lacking in quantity. Because the retailers haven’t had an integrated inventory view, they were only able to offer e-commerce shoppers the choice of placing an order one day and picking it up in the store the next day, because they were dispatching the ordered goods from their warehouses. Thus, the autonomous robots roaming the shelves have allowed retailers to come to an integrated solution of what merchandise is still in the store (and doesn’t need to be shipped from the warehouse) without having their human staff undertake near-constant inventory checks. It seems possible that the mobile data-collection units (robots) that use lasers, radar and cameras to determine stocking needs of goods are the best solution to come along for the combined retail/e-commerce enterprise. The technology of the robots also provides store managers with data to assist in organizing the restocking efforts so that, for example, the more profitable areas are re-stocked first. That brings to mind, therefore, the need for a later version of robot that can mount those re-stocking efforts effectively and efficiently, based on the data that their brother robots have produced. And, then, to complete the scenario, we need to add robotic shoppers to roam the aisles and pick up the food. Soon, all that one will hear when in a supermarket is the whir of the robots at work. I jest – but that future might not be as far away as we think.