Walmart Expands Use of Scanning Robots, Launches MFC for Grocery

Walmart is expanding its fleet of shelf-scanning robots, adding 650 this year for a total of 1,000 as it looks to address nettlesome grocery out-of-stock issues and battle competitors with the technology, including Ahold Delhaize’s Stop & Shop, Giant Eagle and Schnuck’s, Bloomberg is reporting.

The robots from Bossa Nova alert employees via handheld devices when items are out of stock. They can also reduce inventory counts that took two weeks to a twice-daily routine, Bloomberg said. Walmart already has robots that scrub floors, unload trucks and gather online orders.

NCR Corp. will handle installation and upkeep of the Bossa Nova robots, according to Bloomberg, with an NCR executive saying they will eventually be in “the majority” of Walmart’s 4,750 U.S. stores. Walmart is also testing scanning robots from Badger Technologies, and Bossa Nova is working with rival Albertson’s as well.

Walmart also unveiled its first fully operational Alphabot, its answer to the micro-fulfillment center (MFC) craze that is sweeping the grocery sector, at a store in New Hampshire. The system from Alert Innovation, set up in a 20,000-square-foot warehouse space, uses autonomous carts to retrieve grocery orders, including frozen foods, delivering them to a workstation for associates to bag and serve up curbside.

Providers such as Takeoff Technologies, Fabric, Dematic and AutoStore are all battling for share of the MFC space in grocery. An MFC can be set up in a back area of an existing store, adjacent to it or nearby, enabling same-day or even one-hour order fulfillment and delivery.

While associates will continue to pick produce and other fresh items by hand, Walmart said, “Alphabot will help make the retrieval process for all other items easier and faster.” The rise of the robots has many store and warehouse workers concerned for their jobs at Walmart and many other retailers, while companies and vendors say associates will be redeployed in other roles. A report last year from McKinsey & Co. said about half of all retail activities can be automated with existing technology.

“This is going to be a transformative impact to Walmart’s supply chain,” said Brian Roth, Walmart’s senior manager of pickup automation and digital operations in a blog post. “Alphabot is streamlining the order process, allowing associates to do their jobs with greater speed and efficiency.”

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