The robots are coming! Well, they’re already here, and have been for a while. The manufacturing industry has seen seismic shifts in productivity and in its labor force since the introduction of automation, and is poised for a great deal more disruption.
However, sectors like manufacturing, warehousing, and aviation aren’t the only ones which robots have made or will make an impact on. In particular, retail is starting to wake up to the potential of robotics and other labor-saving technologies, which may soon take over a large amount of work currently performed by humans. So, who is looking to use robots in retail, and what are they doing with them?
Multiple companies are intending to use robots in grocery stores to perform various tasks that humans are doing right now. Amazon, for example, with its takeover of Whole Foods, seeks to use robots to automate its delivery services. While the use of robots in its warehouses will likely transfer over to its new holdings, the company now has an incentive to justify investing in refrigerated warehouses, and transform how food gets to the store and to its customers’ homes.
One possible plan is a network of automated warehouses designed specifically for groceries; the challenge for the company will be to bring its expertise at handling non-perishables to foods that have to be stored at different temperatures, for example.
Amazon may well plan to make other advances in automation as well, such as the use of robots in grocery stores themselves – though this may be some ways off.
It’s not in some ways far off for US grocery store Schnucks, however, which is testing a fleet of robotic stock-checkers called Tally (by Simbe robotics), which will roam the aisles and check stock and prices. The robots can stretch to reach the taller shelves, and have multiple cameras and other sensors to relay data to store management. Initially, the chain will test them in three stores before rolling them out to the rest of its 100 locations.
Interacting with robots is something that we do already in automated phone chats – so it’s no surprise that robots specifically tailored for customer service are also in the pipeline. The Lowebot, in testing by retail and home appliance store Lowe’s, is one such example. Customers interact with the Lowebot via touchscreen or voice commands, and then are taken right to the item they’re looking for.
Like Tally, the Lowebot performs inventory tracking, so it can figure out if something is in stock or not and inform the customer. It even has a camera that a customer can show an item to, like a spare part, which it can then recognize and then act appropriately.
In Japan, where robotics research has been spearheaded for decades, more than 140 Softbank Mobile stores are currently using the humanoid customer service robot Pepper to interact with their customers. Pepper can give directions, answer questions, and chat with customers. Whether the robot will make a large business impact remains to be seen, but it’s a step on the way to a more fully automated customer service experience.
These changes are coming fast, and more and more companies are using robots in all aspects of their retail services. There is of course a real worry that many jobs will be lost because of automation – and that concern is not ill-founded – but those jobs don’t have to be yours.
One profession that is going to receive a huge boost in the coming years is that of robotics or automation technician. Robots are going to go wrong or break down, and they’re going to need servicing – and it’s going to take a while before they can do it themselves.
Various online courses in robotics are available to help you get a head start in the field before anyone else does – and they will. So, getting some high-quality robotics technician education is a good bet for a robot-dominated future.
There’s never been a better time to get into the robotics field. The robot revolution is coming faster than you think, and you want to be in a good position when the revolution arrives.