Walmart, America‘s largest retailer and private employer, has been on the forefront when it comes to adopting emerging technologies to transform retail operations. This includes leveraging robotics and automation to optimize the efficiency of everything from stocking shelves to delivering online orders. While Walmart recently ended an in-store robotics pilot, the company continues aggressively expanding warehouse automation to enable seamless omnichannel retail.
Walmart‘s Robotics Journey: Early Experiments to Scaled Deployments
Walmart‘s robotics journey began around five years ago when the company started running controlled tests of new automation technologies. Early pilots explored using autonomous inventory auditing robots in stores as well as drones for inventory management in warehouses. While modest at first, these experiments enabled Walmart to evaluate different robotics capabilities and guide future, wider-scale automation plans.
One of the first robotics vendors Walmart partnered with was Bossa Nova Robotics. In 2016, Walmart worked with Bossa Nova to deploy prototype shelf-scanning robots in a small number of locations to enhance inventory visibility. These robots used computer vision and sensors to autonomously roam aisles and identify stockouts, pricing errors and mislabeled products in real-time.
By 2018, inventory audit robots had been scaled to over 300 Walmart stores with plans for further expansion. However, by late 2020, amidst the Covid-19 pandemic, Walmart ended its partnership with Bossa Nova as priorities shifted towards fulfillment and online order automation. While the retailer no longer uses in-store robots, its warehouse automation efforts have rapidly accelerated.
Warehouse Automation for Omnichannel Retail
Walmart is now working closely with Symbotic to overhaul warehouses with AI-enabled robotics systems to assemble online orders up to 10x faster. The goal is to massively scale the number of online orders Walmart can handle to keep pace with surging ecommerce demand.
Symbotic‘s technology includes proprietary high-speed robotic arms, shuttles and conveyors that work collaboratively with human associates to optimize storage, picking and sorting of inventory. For example, the robotic arms can retrieve individual items from storage racks, while the robotic shuttles bring items to workers to efficiently assemble customer orders.
So far, Symbotic robots have been implemented in Walmart‘s Brooksville, Florida warehouse. The results have been promising, with the ability to fulfill online orders 3x faster at double the productivity compared to human-only operation. Based on the initial success, Walmart has committed to outfitting 25 more regional distribution centers with Symbotic systems over the next few years.
Boosting Fulfillment and Last Mile Delivery
According to experts, enhanced warehouse automation will allow Walmart to achieve 1-hour and same-day fulfillment windows for online order pickup and delivery. This level of speed and convenience better matches customer expectations in the age of Amazon and sets Walmart apart from other mass retailers.
By leveraging robotics, Walmart aims to assemble online grocery orders and general merchandise orders within minutes at local warehouses. Associates will then load completed orders into delivery vehicles for direct shipment to customers or curbside pickup. Self-driving vehicles and drones could further accelerate last mile delivery in the future.
Evolution of Retail Work Amidst Automation
While inevitable, the rise of retail automation does not necessarily equate to less human work. According to Walmart, warehouse robots are intended to take over dangerous, repetitive tasks, enabling associates to focus on higher value activities like produce picking, exception handling and customer service. Retraining programs are helping workers operate alongside automation.
That said, the introduction of warehouse robots has changed the nature of work. Some responsibilities like packing orders are becoming more specialized and automated. At the same time, new hybrid roles combining problem solving, analytics and technical aptitude are emerging. Striking the right balance between human and robot collaboration remains an evolving challenge.
The Future of Automated Retail
Looking ahead, Walmart plans to continue aggressively expanding its robotics footprint by upgrading more warehouses, while exploring bleeding edge technologies like drone delivery. The company is also hiring more automation-focused roles like data scientists, robotics technicians and AI specialists to support its growing automated retail ecosystem.
While the in-store Bossa Nova robot pilot faced challenges, Walmart continues viewing robotics as a competitive advantage and cost efficiency lever in its battle against Amazon and rising consumer expectations for omnichannel retail. Ultimately, success will depend on intelligently combining automation with human ingenuity to create a seamless, profitable and sustainable next generation retail experience.