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Rise of the Machines: Supply Chain Technology Brings Robots to Fulfill Orders

Michael Wilson | Nov 8, 2018

Category: Industrial

Holiday retail sales are beginning earlier than ever, which means that retailers need to be fully staffed earlier in the year as well. Increasing the human workforce with seasonal ...

Holiday retail sales are beginning earlier than ever, which means that retailers need to be fully staffed earlier in the year as well. Increasing the human workforce with seasonal jobs and hiring is the traditional way to cope with increased holiday demand, but brands are turning to a new workforce: robots. Robots are already part of supply chain technology, just not at the retail store level.

Robots are involved in the retail supply chain from product creation and assembly to packaging and logistics, but brands like Walmart are beginning to incorporate robots and automation in diverse ways. Recent advances in the way technology that powers robots and the rise of Artificial Intelligence have led to robotics being more adept at working at all phases of an operation.

Robots have evolved to become smarter, faster, and better; they are now able to work side by side with human teams and efficiently perform all kinds of tasks. The enhanced efficiency allows retailers to stock shelves more swiftly and serve more customers during the busy holiday season.

Walmart’s Robots at Work

Walmart has recently rolled out collaborative robots that scan store shelves and record inventory. This data is then analyzed and passed onto human employees who can restock to meet ongoing demand. These robots don’t look like the typical anthropomorphic, human-shaped automatons of Sci-Fi; instead, they resemble cleaning devices or trash cans. Each robot is roughly two feet tall and roams the store unassisted, examining shelves with an onboard camera vision system.

Since the robots do not tire, don’t need breaks, and can even work while the store is closed, the team can be aware of the need for restocking any item in the store. The machines also convey data in real time, so during the busy holiday season, employees can be alerted to low inventory and prevent shopper frustration by restocking as needed. According to Walmart, robots are about 50% faster than human workers and can easily work alongside human teams, boosting efficiency and productivity.

Increased Competition for Employees Leads to Demand

Brands that may not have otherwise considered supply chain technology, specifically robotics, are turning to machines to fulfill orders, stock warehouses, and participate in all levels of inventory management, simply because of the competitive hiring environment for employees. Right now, business demand is high, but unemployment is low, meaning that it may be more difficult to acquire the human employees needed to fulfill consumer demand. Robotics could fill these jobs or allow fewer employees to cover the needed tasks.

Logistics Brands are Ready

Supply chain and logistics brands are also realizing the effectiveness of robotic workers—brands like XPO Logistics have invested heavily in automation and robotics as an essential part of the supply chain. According to XPO, adding robots to the team (each can pull and transport thousands of pounds) increases efficiency considerably, shaving hours off of the time it takes to fulfill orders and prepare shipments.

Why Now?

The recent interest and adoption of robotics in supply chain technology  are due to a variety of factors. The development of technology and artificial intelligence has finally come to the point that these machines are truly ready to deploy. Surging interest in the holiday season (combined with earlier and earlier shopping) and increasing competition for human workers has helped pave the way for robot workers.

Retailers are becoming more aware of the need to be competitive; Amazon acquired Kiva Systems, a robotics firm that has supplied the brand with a variety of helpful assets and dramatically decreased shipping time, resulting in more satisfied consumers. As brick and mortar stores are constantly working to remain relevant and compete with the online giant, robotics seems like a natural solution.

The increased interest in robots in the supply chain and at the store level will likely continue to increase as demand rises and technology continues to evolve. As more brands rely on and begin to find new ways to use robots, consumers should expect to continue to see these non-human workers stocking shelves, working in the warehouse and improving efficiency at the store level.

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