#SquadGoals: How Automated Assistants are Helping Us Work Smarter
April 9, 2019
By Elizabeth Walker, Walmart Corporate Affairs
Every hero needs a sidekick, and some of the best have been automated. Think R2D2, Optimus Prime and Robot from Lost in Space. Just like Will Robinson and Luke Skywalker, having the right kind of support helps our associates succeed at their jobs.
Smart assistants have huge potential to make busy stores run more smoothly, so Walmart has been pioneering new technologies to minimize the time an associate spends on the more mundane and repetitive tasks like cleaning floors or checking inventory on a shelf. This gives associates more of an opportunity to do what they’re uniquely qualified for: serve customers face-to-face on the sales floor.
The 2018 tests of these technologies have been well-received, but it’s not enough to have these cutting-edge systems in just a few locations. That’s why additional technologies are coming soon to stores across America. And we’re going big:
1,500 new autonomous floor cleaners, aka “Auto-C”: After an associate preps the area, this machine can be programmed to travel throughout the open parts of the store, leaving behind a clean, polished floor. Auto-C provides a cleaner shopping experience for our customers, and it frees up our associates to serve them better.
300 additional shelf scanners, aka “Auto-S”: This technology scans items on store shelves to help ensure availability, correct shelf location, and price accuracy.
1,200 more FAST Unloaders: Working with the shelf scanner, the FAST Unloader automatically scans and sorts items unloaded from trucks based on priority and department. This allows associates to move inventory from the back room to the sales floor more quickly – ultimately giving our customers what they want, when they want it.
900 new Pickup Towers: A customer places an order online and selects for an in-store pickup. The associate loads the ordered item into the Pickup Tower. When a customer receives a notification via email that the item is available, they can use the Pickup Tower like a giant vending machine to retrieve their purchase.
That’s a lot of extra help for associates, and what’s especially cool is that two pieces of tech, the shelf scanners and the FAST Unloaders, share data back and forth to improve the whole process of getting products on the shelves.
What does this mean for the customer? It means a store that can function seamlessly and associates who are there when customers need them. It also means the items are on shelves where the customers expect in smarter stores all over the country.
Walmart has been piloting these different technologies for months now, and the response from associates has been overwhelmingly positive.
“Our associates immediately understood the opportunity for the new technology to free them up from focusing on tasks that are repeatable, predictable and manual, “said John Crecelius, senior vice president of Central Operations for Walmart U.S. “It allows them time to focus more on selling merchandise and serving customers, which they tell us have always been the most exciting parts of working in retail.”
These new technologies are helpful, but they’re more than simply convenient. The idea is that by leaning into the future, associates will be able to have more satisfying jobs as retail continues to change.
Walmart associates may not be saving the day in a fantasy world, but they are saving customers time and money in real life – and these smart sidekicks are one of the key tools helping them to succeed.
Walmart will soon use hundreds of A.I. robot janitors to scrub the floors of US stores
The robot scrubbers will free up existing Walmart employees to have more time to perform other tasks, according to John Crecelius, Walmart's vice president of central operations. "BrainOS is a powerful tool in helping our associates complete repetitive tasks so they can focus on other tasks within role and spend more time serving customers," Crecelius said in a statement.
A computational neuroscientist, Izhikevich co-founded Brain Corp. in 2009 and the company has raised roughly $125 million in funding from investors who include Softbank and Qualcomm. While Walmart and Brain Corp. did not disclose any plans for additional partnerships in the future, Izhikevich did say in the press release that his company "look[s] forward to continuing to work alongside Walmart to help build intelligent, connected stores."
Walmart has already deployed robots to take over other work usually performed by human employees, including using shelf-scanning robots in dozens of US stores to search for inventory and prices while also locating misplaced items.
Walmart is looking to rely more and more on automation in the future — an evolution that could free up current employees to perform more efficient, higher value tasks, but which some critics worry could also result in lower wages and fewer jobs at a company that is currently America's largest private employer with over 1.5 million paid workers.
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Walmart is bringing a new type of automation to its stores
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Walmart is bringing an autonomous vehicle to its stores to free up employees’ time and improve its stores’ efficiency, according to a company blog post. The Autonomous Cleaner, Auto-C for short, is a self-driving machine that cleans and polishes Walmart stores’ floors.
The intention of the technology appears to be to give employees more time to dedicate to other tasks, whether it be other cleaning activities, helping shoppers, or otherwise, rather than replace them. Without Auto-C, an employee at each store spends 2 hours a day performing the same task, and the technology is now available at 78 stores, with plans to bring it to another 360 soon.
Using cleaning robots is part of a larger effort on Walmart’s part to automate store associate tasks.
- Walmart plans to bring autonomous inventory management robots to more stores. The company has worked with robotics company Bossa Nova to use autonomous aisle-scanning robots in 50 of its stores, and it intends to expand the initiative by next year. The robots, now referred to as Auto-S, scan shelves through Walmart’s stores, helping it track what’s out of stock, mislabeled, and priced incorrectly. And Auto-S robots are three times faster than humans and can be twice as accurate, Bossa Nova CBO Martin Hitch told CNBC, making Walmart’s stores more efficient, and again saving associates time.
- It’s adding conveyor belts that sort products from trucks when they’re unloaded.The conveyor belts can cut down the number of workers needed to unload trucks, from approximately eight to four, on the nine or so deliveries a typical store receives each week, Walmart executives said at a presentation, per The Wall Street Journal. This allows Walmart to reallocate its employees and unload trucks faster.
- The retailer is testing a system that automatically collects grocery orders. The system, dubbed Alphabot, is in development in a 20,000 square foot extension at a Walmart store in New Hampshire, and it uses automated carts to bring items to employees to put together into orders. If the system proves successful, Walmart won't need its employees to retrieve grocery orders themselves, and can instead use them to complete the orders and focus on other responsibilities.
Automating associates’ work to repurpose their time, and not to simply save on labor costs, can benefit Walmart.
- The retailer could make additional associates available to help shoppers. Store associates can help physical retailers stand out from online shopping, but employees need to have time in order to be available and helpful. Freeing them up from cleaning, inventory tracking, and other duties can make them more accessible, and build a better shopping experience.
- It can focus more of employees’ time on e-commerce and omnichannel orders.Walmart can put the time it saves employees with automation toward handling online orders in-store, whether it be for in-store pickup or ship-from-store, helping it maximize the value of its brick-and-mortar network across channels.
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Walmart adds nearly 4K robots to stores
Walmart on Tuesday announced it would be adding more robots to its stores: 1,500 additional "Auto-C" robots, which are autonomous floor cleaners; 300 "Auto-S" robots, which scan shelves to ensure availability, accurate location and correct pricing; 1,200 "FAST Unloaders," which automatically scan and sort items from trucks; and 900 "Pickup Towers," where consumers can pick up purchases ordered online.
The expansion of Walmart's robotic fleet is in an effort to give associates more time to serve customers face-to-face, according to a company press release. "The idea is that by leaning into the future, associates will be able to have more satisfying jobs as retail continues to change," the company said.
Walmart used 2018 to pilot these technologies less widely: In December, Walmart brought 78 floor-scrubbing robots into its stores with original plans to have 360 in total, and this time last year, Walmart expanded its Pickup Towers to 700 stores.
Walmart's latest announcement to add nearly 4,000 robots into stores further adds to the retailer's growing emphasis on technology.
Throughout 2018, the retailer piloted autonomous floor scrubbers, shelf-scanning robots, FAST Unloaders and pickup towers in several stores. This comes in addition to Walmart's online grocery pickup bot, Alphabot, in collaboration with startup Alert Innovation, as well as mobile express Scan & Go and, up until January of this year, grocery delivery through Google Express.
And despite a 2013 Oxford University study estimating that there's a 92% probability that a number of retail salespeople will be displaced by technology by 2023, a Walmart spokesperson previously told Retail Dive this isn't a concern the retailer has.
Walmart has added technology such as VR associate training and armed associates with an app to help customers order and pay for items on the retailer's website, both moves the retailer said allow associates to better serve customers.
Other retailers have added similar technologies: Amazon installed pickup lockers in Whole Foods, apartment buildings, college campuses and has plans to include a number at the Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival later this month. The e-commerce giant also rolled out Scout, an automated delivery robot and secured a patent for package pickup locations on buses. And Ahold Delhaize-owned Giant, Martin's and Stop & Shop added "Marty," an automated shelf-scanning robot to its workforce earlier this year.
While it remains unclear whether robots will replace a significant number of human jobs, it appears the implementation of the technology isn't slowing down.
Auto c walmart
Walmart has signed a deal for aisle-cleaning robots. The retail giant has agreed to purchase 360 floor-scrubbing machines, built by the San Diego–based Brain Corp.
From a press statement, it appears that the company has bought over 300 ICE RS26s, a model which Brain Corp says "represents the next generation of robotic floor care." It's got a cleaning path capable of scrubbing 26 inches at a time and moves at a leisurely 2 mph while functioning autonomously. Put it under manual control and it can hit 4 mph. According to Walmart, the robots are named Auto-C.
The Bentonville, Arkansas–based retailer is the United States' single-largest employer. The company employees over 1.5 million workers within its U.S. operations.
The robots will require initial assistance from employees. According to the press release, store employees will take the robot on "an initial training ride," where the employee will map out a route through the store. From there, the employee will be able to "activate autonomous floor cleaning with the press of a single button."
The slow-moving robot will then use multiple sensors to scan for objects and people as it goes about its duties.
Dr. Eugene Izhikevich, CEO of Brain Corp, said in a statement:
"BrainOS technology allows robots to effectively and safely function in complex, crowded environments, ensuring increased productivity and efficiency across applications. We look forward to continuing to work alongside Walmart to help build intelligent, connected stores."
The robots will be tidying the aisles by January 31, 2019.
A study from Forrester Research in 2017 predicted that while automation has the potential to add 14.9 million jobs by 2027, it also has the potential to eliminate 24.7 million other jobs. Automation has become an increasingly large factor in the American workplace over the last decade. Companies from Sierra Nevada to Ford have begun ushering forth automation in their factories. Amazon has been testing object-grabbing robots in competitions for years.
Now, it's Walmart's turn.
David GrossmanDavid Grossman is a staff writer for PopularMechanics.com.
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