Walmart is employing autonomous floor scrubbers to speed up the chore and free up janitorial workers’ time to get other tasks done, according to Walmart and the company making the machines, San Diego-based software technology company Brain Corp.
Brain Corp.’s BrainOS platform gives the machines autonomous navigation and data collection capabilities tied to a cloud-based system, according to a company press release.
Walmart brought the robot scrubbers into 78 stores in October, and plans to have some 360 in total, according to a company blog post.
Walmart isn’t a tech company the way Amazon is, but the retail giant has leveraged technology for decades — mostly in the service of making its operations more efficient.
In the current tech era, the retailer has pushed more than 1,400 patent applications since 2009, including biometric feedback and automated robotic shopping carts, virtual reality shopping and merchandising, in-store audio monitoring of store activities, alphabot robotics to speed up grocery pickup and autonomous robots that scan aisles for out-of-stock and mislabeled items. These scrubbers are just the latest example, doing much of the work of what for a human is a two-hour task, a Walmart spokesperson told Retail Dive in an interview.
While such efficiencies might save Walmart both time and money, they come with a cost that the retailer — and the industry in general — hasn’t reckoned with, according to Doug Stephens, founder and president of Retail Prophet. Yet the displacement of so many jobs has serious implications, he told Retail Dive in an email.
"This is part of a much broader trend in which many of the frontline and operational staff in the retail sector are going to be dis-intermediated by technologies such as artificial intelligence and robotics," he said. "Inventory management, janitorial, checkout, customer service and even some routine management activities are rapidly migrating to technology. Essentially if your work is either physically or cognitively repetitive, you can rest assured someone is developing a technology to do that work."
In fact, there's a 92% probability that "vast numbers" of retail salespeople will be displaced by technology by 2023, Stephens said, citing a 2013 Oxford University study.
A Walmart spokesperson dismissed the concern, noting that the floor scrubbing job, which entails a worker riding the machine like a mower, is overly mundane and time consuming. The robot version still requires human assistance to some extent, and frees the worker up for other aspects of the job, he said.
But Stephens is skeptical of that, and warns that Walmart — and retailers that are similarly replacing workers with tech — could hurt the well being and spending power of their own customer base.
The retail industry is rife with operations that are increasingly being automated, and Walmart is "hardly alone in their technology strategy," Stephens also said, noting that warehouse employment, transportation, loss prevention, accounting functions and even store management are all poised to lessen their need for human resources, and that needs a societal fix. "Unless the job requires creativity, lateral problem solving or dynamism, it will fall under the microscope as an unnecessary cost," Stephens warned.