- Walmart is piloting the use of storage and retrieval robotics, dubbed Alphabot, to increase the speed of online grocery order pickup, according to blog post.
- The technology, which was developed in collaboration between Walmart and startup Alert Innovation, is being installed in a 20,000 square foot extension of a Salem, New Hampshire supercenter, which will also be a dedicated pickup point for groceries. Walmart said it will be operational by the end of this year, while regular grocery pickup will begin at the store on Oct. 1. Grocery delivery also will be initiated in the coming months.
- The supercenter remodel was officially unveiled Friday and is set to include several other technological innovations. Among them: a Pickup Tower, where consumers can retrieve online orders in less than a minute by scanning a barcode on their smartphones; the Bossa Nova shelf scanner, which uses automation to check inventory levels, correct pricing and missing labels; a FAST Unloader, which is a scanner and conveyor system to automatically sort items unloaded from daily replenishment trucks according to department and priority; and the Check Out with Me program, which provides associates with cellular devices and Bluetooth printers to check out shoppers on the spot.
The Alphabot grocery order-picking robotics system is the latest technology from the retailer that reflects the continued development of online order technologies, especially those for buy-online, pickup-in-store (BOPIS) installations. The large extension being added to the store — essentially a mini-warehouse — is also seen as a first for the company.
The system will introduce automated mobile carts that will gather ordered items from the warehouse-style storage space and bring them to associates at the store’s four pick stations. Personal shoppers will then assemble the orders. The new system will be used to fulfill almost all of the grocery products offered in-store, except fresh items that will be picked by the personal shoppers.
The use of robotics in fulfillment is becoming widespread and it is another application of the Internet of Things. Boxed has unveiled a new generation of an autonomously guided vehicle system that roams the aisles of fulfillment centers, saving order pickers the trouble of manually locating and transporting items.
Amazon has long been on the cutting edge of warehouse robotics. It recently was awarded a patent for "Robotic Tossing of Items in an Inventory System" and a "Mobile Configurable Conveyor Component." In a recently opened fulfillment center in Houston, Amazon reported adding 2,500 new workers to the staff to run the automated warehouse. Another report said Amazon increased its workforce 46% between the fourth quarter of 2015 and the third quarter of 2016, a time when it was adding 15,000 non-human workers to its fulfillment centers, about a 50% increase.
Notably, the Walmart blog post emphasized how the Alphabot robotics system will benefit store associates, soft-pedaling its labor saving potential. Walmart said the system will allow the order pickup associates to spend more time on selecting fresh products like produce and meat, and less time walking store aisles searching for products.