Robots, including those working in retail, “shipped to North American companies in record numbers last year,” according to a new report from the Robotic Industries Association. The new numbers underscore the advance of automation in commerce, though there are still significant question about how these trends might develop further in the coming years.
Overall, the report found a 7 percent year-over-year increase in 2018 in robot unit shipments to North America — to 35,800. Robots shipped for use in the food and consumer goods sector, however, increased 48 percent year over year. That was a larger sector increase than for plastics and rubber (37 percent), life sciences (31 percent) or electronics (22 percent).
“Meanwhile, shipments to the automotive industry slowed, with only 19,178 units shipped to North American automotive OEM and tier supplier customers in 2018,” the report said. “This was 12 percent lower than the 21,732 units shipped in 2017. Overall, the automotive industry accounted for only 53 percent of total robot shipments in North America in 2018, its lowest percentage share since 2010.”
As PYMNTS has reported, robots, which have already taken their place inside eCommerce and other commerce-related warehouses, will in the coming years take even larger roles in fulfillment, according to estimates. Hot on their trail are machine learning and artificial intelligence technologies — the software and algorithms promising to reduce the risks of overstocking and understocking, and providing other benefits that can boost retailers’ revenue.
It’s not only eCommerce warehouses where robots are finding a home. Significant developments have recently been taking place in grocery — itself a hotbed of retail tech progress as that traditionally staid industry strives, in places at least, to meet the demands of mobile and online consumers.
For instance, Ahold Delhaize USA is planning to roll out nearly 500 robots to its Stop & Shop and Giant/Martin’s locations. The launch of the in-store robots called “Marty” — one of the largest deployments of robotics innovation in the U.S. grocery industry — is the result of a partnership between Retail Business Services (the services company of Ahold Delhaize USA) and Badger Technologies, a division of Jabil. The robots have already gone through several successful test pilots that were used to improve in-store efficiencies and safety. “Marty” was used to identify hazards, such as liquid, powder and bulk food item spills, which helps stores mitigate risk caused by these spills and allows employees to spend more time serving customers.
That’s not the only role robots are playing — or will play — in the grocery world. Retailers have been testing out shelf-scanning robots to find out if they can handle restocking a store’s inventory when needed. The need? A recent survey revealed that more than three-quarters of respondents aren’t able to track their inventory in real time. As a result, shoppers looking to pick up an online order in-store may have to wait for confirmation that the product is actually available at a certain location.
Companies are looking to make the inventory process easier, without having store workers constantly performing inventory counts. Bossa Nova’s robots, which are being tested out at 50 Walmart stores, will use lasers, radar and cameras to review store aisles to figure out which products need to be restocked, as well as help managers target what to restock based on profitability and other factors.
Beyond grocery and eCommerce warehouses, robots are also making a play in deliveries — in fact, one of the most important parts of the online retail delivery process. FedEx plans to start testing a delivery robot this summer for “last-mile” home deliveries, and has partnered with Walmart, Pizza Hut and others to try out the technology.
The delivery and logistics company teamed up with DEKA Research & Development, the company responsible for the Segway and the iBot stair-climbing wheelchair, to develop the robot. The robot is battery powered and about the size of a cooler. Cameras, lasers and software help it avoid obstacles as it moves down the sidewalk or along the road. It can reach speeds up to 10 miles an hour. The robot has two smaller wheels in front that can lift up, and two large wheels on each side. It can navigate curbs, steps and uneven surfaces.
One doesn’t have to be too old to recall when the common saying was “The robots are coming.” Obviously, they are here. And as these new numbers and news stories show, robots are making significant impacts in a variety of areas important to commerce.