AI-powered robots are transforming traditional warehouses into smart ones, enabling teams to fulfill orders more efficiently, reduce manual lifting and improve stock control. Now they promise to do the same for retail, says Red McKay, of Bossa Nova Robotics.
The world's biggest and most successful manufacturing, warehousing and e-commerce firms invest heavily in automation to increase efficiency, productivity and customer satisfaction. With the potential to deliver strong commercial returns, it was only a matter of time before we saw automation being used in bricks-and-mortar grocery stores.
While data has always been crucial to FMCG retailers, collecting it in the quantities needed to draw accurate insights can sometimes be challenging. All this is changing thanks to advances in data capture techniques.
Processes that would once have taken a day or more to undertake, such as manual stocktakes, can now be achieved in a matter of minutes, using autonomous robots and real-time data capture. As well as time-saving benefits, store managers and head offices gain a complete picture of what is happening in their store in real-time, which helps them make more informed decisions.
How the UK is catching up with the US
Walmart, the world's largest retailer, recently announced the adoption and deployment of Bossa Nova robots to help automate on-shelf inventory data collection and analysis. Simply put, our robots allow grocers to be more agile in meeting customer demands and ensuring stock is available in the right place, at the right time, to drive sales. We're now working with UK supermarkets as they embark on similar transformation projects to bolster operational efficiency and customer shopping experiences.
The robots are fitted with our software - a combination of robotics, computer vision and artificial intelligence - programmed to autonomously drive around the shop floor, capturing a product's 2D image and other identifiers in real-time. Within minutes, the store team receives this information, which is presented in a way that tells them immediately whether or not they need to order additional stock, replenish shelves, or fix pricing labels. Since the robots scan while in motion, there is no need for them to stop or slow down. To put it into context, the bots can scan 60 linear foot aisles with 94 percent accuracy in just 90 seconds.
With the introduction of autonomous robotics comes the consideration of safety and of course, this has been a paramount requirement from our retailer partners. We reassure these queries with the knowledge that robots powered by our software have scanned around 20,000km autonomously, with zero human or environmental collisions.
Bolstering communities by working with people
We are now on the cusp of seeing AI-powered robots widely deployed, not just in factories and warehouses, but in customer-facing environments too. Customers are naturally going to be intrigued when they see them in stores, and employees may have questions - including whether they will one day replace human assistants and/or pose a risk to safety.
But nothing could be further from the truth. Our data enables retailers to optimize their operations and remove error-ridden manual processes in order to improve the business. The tech has been developed to remove repetitive and labor-intensive tasks like scanning thousands of labels. Therefore, this allows staff members to be freed up to address key in-store jobs such as stock replenishment and customer service.
Looking ahead at the future retail landscape
The pressures facing bricks-and-mortar stores are well known and they are only set to intensify in the coming years as e-commerce businesses raise the stakes on convenience and price.
By using technology to closely align demand with stock availability, stores can compete on a more equal footing with their online counterparts. You only have to look at the results some of our US retailers have seen - up to 200 percent ROI - to see where the untapped opportunities for UK supermarkets lie.
Despite the challenges retailers now face, I am extremely optimistic about the future for UK retail. The landscape is clearly changing, as customers become less willing to accept poor service or product substitutes. Competition in the grocery store sector is fierce, so it is an exciting time to work with supermarkets as they realize the potential of AI-powered collaboration systems.
This article originally appeared in Retail Sector Magazine on May 15, 2019.