Walmart has become a strong player in the U.S. grocery market and online sales are playing a larger role in this category. So it’s no surprise that Walmart is looking to robot technology from Alert Innovation to drive more efficient online sales fulfillment.
Many consumers are trying online grocery ordering and expect fast service, whether for home delivery or pickup at store. This puts pressure on grocery warehouse operations to pick the order items and have them ready in 1-2 hours. Speed of fulfillment has become a highly competitive factor among the grocers, so robots can save time and money as the stores race to get the products out the door.
Walmart is not alone here, as other big grocers are teaming with developers to put robots in play as well. Examples are Kroger and Ocado, Ahold-Delaize’s Stop & Shop, and Albertsons with Takeoff Technologies. Watch for robots to continue to play a big role in online grocery order fulfillment, with the caveat that the big cost investment that will pressure on grocers’ thin margins.
A Boston Globe article discusses more on this topic, which is excerpted below:
Walmart is betting that online grocery shopping will be so popular someday that its workforce will have a hard time keeping up with all the orders. So here come the robots.
The giant retailer has teamed up with Alert Innovation, a robotics engineering firm in North Billerica, to build a “micro-fulfillment center” — a 20,000-square-foot, semi-automated miniature warehouse — alongside the Walmart Superstore in Salem. Inside a large, windowless concrete cube, humans and robots work together to quickly pick and pack thousands of grocery items that were ordered online, and trundle them outside to shoppers waiting in their cars.
The system is called Alphabot. It uses small wheeled robots that roll along long steel rails, surrounded by shelves containing plastic bins. Each bin holds some commonplace item — mustard, taco seasoning, pistachio nuts, and so on. There’s a refrigerated section, so customers can order chilled or frozen foods.
The shelves are about as long as a basketball court and three stories high. Each robot has geared wheels that let it climb up or down through horizontal shafts. When it reaches the right level, the robot rolls up to the correct bin, plucks it from the shelf, then descends to a packing station. The robot passes the bin to a Walmart worker who picks out the correct item and plops it into a different bin lined with standard grocery bags.
Overview by Raymond Pucci, Director, Merchant Services at Mercator Advisory Group