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July 21, 2023 5 min read

Robotics and AI Help To Level Up the Retail Industry

Robotics and AI Help To Level Up the Retail Industry

Picture this: you enter a store without any employees. To buy something, you simply take it off the shelf – after you leave, the system charges you automatically. If you want to grab a hot dog, a robot makes it for you in less than 1 minute. Even though all of that might sound like a gimmicky future, it’s already happening in one of the Żabka Nano stores in Warsaw, powered by an ingenious combination of machinery and software. 

Never mind the hot dogs, the autonomous store concept is gaining traction all over the world. And so is robotics in the retail industry. But what can you get from employing machines in your business? For starters, they could reduce your operating expenses by up to 20% – read on to see how.

More than snack making

The hot dog assembly is more of an interesting technology demonstration, rather than a first step on the way to complete robotization. 

It consists of the common and proven robotic arm design, similar to the one found on automotive assembly lines. However, since not everyone sells hot dogs, questions like “How adaptable is it?” or “What’s the ROI of this robot?” might arise.

Regardless of the above example, robotics is already working for the retail sector. Before we get to talk about the current use cases, let’s briefly discuss other areas that could be supplemented by machines on a wider scale in the near future. 

Automated grocery bagging

Some robots, like the Magic Ball created by MIT, can pick up objects of different shapes without damaging them. They use a special gripper inspired by origami and a vacuum to grab things. The robot can reliably lift objects that are even 20 times heavier than itself.

Another system, called Regi-Robo by Panasonic, combines bagging groceries with automated checkout. It uses a special basket, RFID tags on products, and an automated checkout register. When a customer places their basket on the register, the groceries slide into a bag. The register collects product data from the RFID tags, so there's no need to scan barcodes.

There's also an experimental design by Ocado called RBO Hand 2. It's a hand-like robot powered by pneumatic actuators. It's still being developed and might be used in automated warehouses in the future.

These robot solutions can make shopping easier, especially for people with disabilities or limited mobility. They can also reduce lines and waiting times at the checkout.

Grocery delivery

robot - grocery shopping

Now, even automated checkout requires customers to visit the store physically. But there is a way to eliminate this “inconvenience” from the retail shopping experience. We’re talking about the tech for getting the goods from the store to the buyer. It’s not yet there, but delivery robots are being actively tested all around the world.

Let’s just mention the two Delivery Couple robots in Lublin or a fleet of Ottobots at the Cincinnati airport in Ohio that make sure that the customers receive their food or grocery orders without leaving their homes or boarding gates.

Technology is also leveraged at the pickup stage, like in the case of Arctan click&collect devices by Retail Robotics. These sleek machines automated by our IoT software have a great impact on time and cost efficiency thanks to allowing multiple couriers or customers to access the service at the same time, among other benefits.

Inventory management and data analysis

Data is the new oil, as once said. And to further improve the customer experience of your buyers, you need to collect data – so that you know what items sell the most or when to restock the shelves.

Instead of having your employees do the additional work of gathering all the necessary information, you could turn to autonomous devices designed for the sole purpose of data collection, which can later be leveraged by AI algorithms. A possible solution? Automated shelf-scanners. Brain Corp’s Robotic Floor Scrubbers can be outfitted with special sensors for shelf condition monitoring. This way, retailers receive real-time information about misplaced products or empty shelves.

warehouse robots

There are also robots dedicated strictly to shelf monitoring. Here are some of the designs you could look up for inspiration:

  • Tally 3 by Simbe Robotics. 
  • LoweBot by Lowe’s Innovation Labs. 
  • EMA50 by Zebra Technologies Corporation.

These robots are similar in many ways. They are tall towers with cameras and sensors for collecting data. However, each robot has a different focus. Tally 3 has high-quality imagery thanks to HDR systems. LoweBot serves as a customer support point with a touchscreen for store maps and product information. EMA50 is part of a comprehensive inventory monitoring system called SmartSight. 

Regardless of their design, these robots greatly improve inventory audits with over 99% accuracy. They also provide detailed analysis of customer behavior and shopping patterns, which is crucial for successful retail strategies tailored to customers.

The machines are already here – and they are doing well

Despite the fact that some of the above examples have already seen limited adoption, their creators are still mostly “ironing out the kinks.” However, there already are more mainstream examples of successful robotization in retail and related fields. 

Cleaning and warehouse maintenance 

Although often tiresome, cleaning isn’t a complex task. No wonder then why some of the retail robotics forerunners are meant just for that. 

For example, Sam's Club, a retail warehouse chain in the USA, has introduced around 600 robot floor scrubbers in its stores. Another company called Brain Corp has delivered over 20.000 floor-cleaning robots to its clients since 2009. These robots are equipped with special control units and sensors to map and monitor their environment and avoid obstacles.

What about warehouse maintenance? Well, the savings mentioned in the introduction pertain to this aspect. By using Kiva robots to help handle packages, Amazon reduced operating expenses by approximately 20% across 13 fulfillment centers. Deutsche Bank estimates this to be around $286 million in savings. Kiva robots are like large rectangular Roomba vacuum cleaners, but they are designed for transporting packages in warehouses. They can carry loads more than twice their size.

While Amazon's use case is specific to online warehouses, retail stores with storage spaces could also benefit from heavy lifter robots. These robots not only improve efficiency but also reduce the physical strain on employees, helping to reduce fatigue. 

Autonomous convenience stores

Żabka Nano, the autonomous store concept introduced by Żabka, has revolutionized the convenience sector in Poland. Over one year, from June 2021 to July 2022, Żabka launched 50 fully autonomous stores across the country. 

The brand offers a unique shopping experience. Customers enter the Nano store using the żappka app or a payment card, take what they want, and leave. No baskets, cashiers, or counters are needed. 

This seamless experience is made possible through AI-powered computer vision and other advanced systems such as the innovative AiFi platform working together. This platform, implemented in all the stores, uses cameras, computer vision, and machine learning to recognize products on shelves and process payments. Moreover, customers don’t have to be concerned about privacy and security as the system doesn’t identify individuals or store images.

Żabka Nano has transformed the shopping experience by combining cutting-edge technology with customer-centricity, providing a frictionless and secure way to shop. However, autonomous stores are not the only strategy that Żabka uses to improve operational efficiency. 

The company’s manned stores benefit from the wonders of automation thanks to a modular shop floor management application that provides optimal instructions to employees based on real-time data from their workplaces. Meanwhile, Żabka has recently opened a new automated logistics center, the largest (60 000 m2) and the most technologically advanced facility of this kind in the firm’s history.

Żabka’s impressive focus on investing in artificial intelligence has led to its recognition by Forbes Poland as the most innovative company in Poland that uses AI. We’re proud to have supported this Client in many of their endeavors.

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What’s next for the retail industry?

The future of retail is transforming before our eyes, fueled by the rapid advancements in robotics and artificial intelligence. The once costly and complex process of designing and manufacturing robots and equipping them with the right software is becoming more affordable than ever. But it's not just the cost savings that captivate retail business owners. The prospect of automating tiresome and repetitive tasks is driving them towards embracing robotics. 

A survey conducted by RetailWire and quoted by Robotics and Automation News revealed that a staggering 25% of retailers are already harnessing the power of automation. Nearly half of all retailers claimed they’d be involved with robotics within the next 18 months. Robotics is to become an indispensable component of retail thanks to the perspective of cost savings and the relentless pursuit of improved efficiency. Can you afford to stay behind?

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