The Rise of Robots in Retail

May 9, 2016 Vawn Himmelsbach

Customer service & warehouses go robo

Robots are no longer the stuff of science fiction. They’re running factory floors and distribution centres, and they’re even serving customers in stores, hotels and fast food restaurants.

While there’s some concern that robots will take away jobs performed by humans, or perhaps take over the world, the reality is that robots have the potential to transform the manufacturing, distribution and retail industries — and they can do so in collaboration with their human counterparts.

Indeed, collaborative robots are a hot topic in manufacturing today, according to Frank Tobe in The Robot Report. He writes:

“New collaborative robots by Universal Robots, Rethink Robotics, KUKA and ABB are hitting the marketplace and bringing robotics — and jobs — to new, smaller shops and factories.”

The Robotic Industries Association (RIA), which represents North American robotics, says 2015 showed a 14 per cent increase in units and an 11 per cent increase in dollars over 2014 — setting new records. While the automotive sector showed the most growth, orders for non-automotive robots are also growing.

By 2018, around 1.3 million industrial robots will be entering service in factories around the world, according to the International Federation of Robotics (IFR) — referring to this as the “fourth industrial revolution.”

In Canada, we’re embracing this fourth industrial revolution. Just last month, Hudson’s Bay Co. announced plans to automate its Scarborough, Ont.-based distribution centre with robots. This distribution centre handles ecommerce orders, so HBC is betting on robots to give it an edge — particularly with competition from the likes of Amazon, which is working on same-day drone delivery.

Amazon acquired warehouse robot developer Kiva Systems back in 2012, bringing the technology in-house to focus solely on Amazon’s business. As of last year, Amazon had 30,000 Kiva robots at work in 13 fulfillment centres.

But it’s not the only one: Alibaba in China and Snapdeal in India are also adding robots to their warehouses to fulfill ecommerce orders.

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HBC says its advanced robotic technology, called Perfect Pick, picks stock six to 10 times faster than humans, and is three times faster than Kiva robots in other ecommerce distribution centres, according to an interview in The Globe and Mail.

The Canadian retailer plans to open an ecommerce fulfillment centre in Pennsylvania this July, which will use advanced robotic technology to improve output and reduce costs for its Lord & Taylor and Saks Off 5th banners. It will then roll out robots in its Scarborough distribution centre.

But robots are moving out of the warehouse and into the storefront. Lowe’s is one of the first retailers to do this. Back in 2014, Lowe’s Innovation Labs partnered with Fellow Robots to introduce OSHbot into Orchard Supply Hardware pilot stores in California. Enter a store, and multilingual OSHbot will not only greet you, but also help you find what you’re looking for.

Although more over-produced than a classic demo video, the Lowe's video below shows a fantastic look at how OSHbot can function in a store setting.

At select Aloft hotels in the U.S., a bot named Botlr delivers room service. And in Henn-na, a hotel near Nagasaki, Japan, a blinking female bot and rather scary dragon offer assistance during check-in.

Botlr Robot

But we’re not quite there yet: Two restaurants in China fired their robot waiters for their inability to carry soup.

However, advanced industrial robotics are at an “inflection point,” according to Boston Consulting Group, with lower costs and higher capabilities set to reshape the global manufacturing industry. The firm predicts that in the next decade, robots will perform almost one-quarter of automated tasks, up from 10 per cent today.

There’s even a new category emerging: robotics-as-a-service. While this is still in its infancy, RaaS could make robots accessible to businesses of all sizes — at least theoretically.

Robots are getting smarter. Cloud and analytics are opening the door to new use cases for robots: Not only can they count inventory, but they could also use analytics to glean insight from the data they’re collecting.

No longer will robots be relegated to dull, repetitive tasks (or dangerous ones, like removing land mines). The conversation isn’t about how robots can transform business, but how they’re already doing it. Science fiction has become reality.

Learn more about what's happening in the world of IT & Tech, and tell us your thoughts on robots in retail in the comments section below.

About the Author

Vawn Himmelsbach

Vawn Himmelsbach is a freelance writer and editor based in Toronto. She has covered technology and travel for 15 years, for media outlets such as CBCNews.ca, The Globe & Mail, Metro News, ITBusiness, PCworld Canada and Computerworld Canada. She also spent three years living abroad and working as an Asian correspondent.

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