Food service and retail robots to become a common sight?

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Firms are embracing automation to gain greater insight into consumer behaviour, improve supply chain efficiency and reduce overheads

More than ever, businesses are embracing automation. As food and retail businesses prepare to open their doors once again to the public, a growing number of firms are looking to robotics to provide an expanded range of services.

Indeed, a recent survey carried out by Internet of Things (IoT) company Pod Group shows that almost three-quarters of business leaders in the UK expect the pandemic to spark a new wave of automation in the workplace.

The most popular applications they envisage include spotting holes in inventory in stores more frequently (47 percent), replacing humans with robots in the warehouse for picking and packing (44 percent), and offloading some tasks from humans so they can focus more on customers (35 percent).

But even before the current global pandemic, firms were starting to put robots to work in food production, retail and the food service industries.

For example, Tally, created by Simbe Robotics, is deployed in stores to check shelves to ensure items are in-stock and they are properly tagged and priced. Using a combination of image recognition and machine learning, the autonomous robot glides up and down the aisles, alerting store employees if a product needs to be replenished.

Keeping shelves stocked

Having real-time inventory information is more important than ever, particularly during COVID-19 when food stores and supermarkets struggle to keep products on the shelf.

Tally is currently deployed across regional supermarket chains in the US. However, it’s been reported that giant retail chain Target is testing Tally at one of its stores in San Francisco.

They are not alone. Walmart began rolling out its own robots – their developer Bossa Nova is apparently unwilling to anthropomorphise its creations with names – across its stores in 2017 and plans to have 1,000 in stores by the end of the year.

Similarly, Zebra Technologies’ SmartSight EMA50 uses computer vision, machine learning and workflow automation to identify out-of-stock conditions, pricing inconsistencies, and visual display issues.

According to Zebra’s Global Shopper Study, the primary reason retailers are losing in-store purchases to online shopping is because of problems with inventory management, especially out-of-stock items.

Zebra claims SmartSight can increase store inventory availability more than 95 percent. In addition, it says the system allows retailers to reassign an average of 65 labour hours per store per week to higher-value assignments such as engaging shoppers.

Again, this is hugely useful for periods of high demand such as we have experienced during the COVID-19 crisis, which can put stress on both staff members and shoppers.

The stores are keen highlight the benefits of the robots, such as freeing up employees from mundane tasks or manual labour like unloading delivery trucks. But the real benefit is robots like Tally is the mountains of data that it can instantly process to help the retailer make more qualified business decisions.

Retailers suddenly have e-commerce level visibility into consumer behaviours – a notorious blind spot in physical retail that costs the industry upwards of $1.75 billion in sales per year,” says Brad Bogolea, CEO and co-founder of Simbe Robotics.

The rich data Tally shares in real-time enables retailers to anticipate customer needs based on trends and historical data, improve store operations, and optimise inventory – down to the products exact location on the shelf.”

In-store cleaning duties

Robots aren’t just being deployed to check inventory. In addition to scanning the shelves, a robot called Marty scans floors for spills that need cleaning up. Last December, after a year of trials, Badger rolled out 500 multi-purpose robots into Stop & Shop and Giant/Martin’s grocery stores on the US East Coast.

At six-foot-four inches, 140 lbs, and with googly eyes, the artificial intelligence (AI) inside Marty is split between its collision-avoidance navigation and imaging features, says its developer Badger Technologies.

It’s reported that in the future, Badger hopes to give Marty the power to check and report food temperatures.

Meanwhile, another robot, Millie is being trialled by Australian retailer Woolworths at its grocery stores in Sydney. Similar to Marty, but instead of merely alerting employees to the spills, it can find and clean them up.

Taking their cleaning duties up a notch, more than 200 robots that can disinfect surfaces using ultraviolet light will be rolled out in shopping malls in Singapore by the end of the year to help fight the spread of COVID-19.

Known as Sunburst UV Bots, they are made by local robotics technology firm PBA Group and are built with a lamp module emitting powerful ultraviolet-C (UV-C) light.

To infinity and beyond

Markets and Markets says the retail automation sector is expected to be worth $19 billion by 2023.

This indicates that the applications for robots and automation in food and retail aren’t contained to inventory and cleaning. There are significant opportunities in warehousing, for example – combined with AI and internet of things (IoT) technologies, automation can help streamline the supply chain, prevent shrinkage and optimise fleet management.

Equally, we are entering an era of ‘hyper-convenience’ where the customer demands exceptional service and will not hesitate to abandon a purchase if not completely satisfied. The Pod Group survey reports that more than half of retailers rated using chatbots to automatically assist online shoppers as high value, 44 percent rated robots in store to augment human customer service as high value and 30 percent for robots in store to assist in customer service issues.

As two of the industries hardest hit by the pandemic, both food service and retail will need to think hard about automation as a way to differentiate themselves and provide an additional layer of value to the customer.

Margin pressure has made automation a requirement, not a choice,” McKinsey said in a report last year.

As we emerge from the current crisis, and facing huge economic uncertainty, it is likely that robots in shops, cafes and delivering our food will become an increasingly common sight.

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Christine writes about technology’s impact on business, and is a long-term contributor to specialist IT titles including Channel Pro and Microscope. She also writes for Raconteur and is regularly featured in The Times and Sunday Times.

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