CSA Q&A: Retailers streamline store operations with robots

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CSA Q&A: Retailers streamline store operations with robots

By Dan Berthiaume - 10/05/2020
Phil Duffy
Phil Duffy

Keeping stores clean is just one task retailers can automate with robotic technology.

Chain Store Age recently spoke with Phil Duffy, VP of product, program & user experience design at Brain Corp., about how demand for in-store autonomous robots has risen since the outset of COVID-19. Duffy also explained how robotic technology provides significant value to brick-and-mortar retailers, regardless of pandemic status.

Why has robotics usage increased for retailers in the past year?
The retail industry was exploring ways to incorporate automation and autonomous robots into their business operations long before the COVID-19 pandemic started. However, COVID-19 has certainly increased the demand for autonomous robots—specifically autonomous cleaning robots—since they’re perfectly suited to solve many of the problems retailers are experiencing now. 

Autonomous mobile robots (AMRs) provide vital support for both retailers and their employees and add value to the overall business. Our BrainOS-powered floor care robots are providing over 11,000 hours of daily work that otherwise would have been done by a retail worker. 

This frees up their time and allows them to focus on other high-value tasks that are important during this crisis, such as disinfecting high-contact surfaces, re-stocking products, supporting customers, or even taking a much-needed break. We saw a 24% spike in robotic usage among retailers during Q2 compared to the same period last year, according to our internal data. 

I think retailers have also realized that addressing heightened cleaning challenges requires a new way of thinking about people, processes, and technology. AMRs allow retailers to quickly adapt to meet new COVID-19 guidelines, while bringing cost-savings and greater safety. These robots are helping them now and will maintain high levels of sanitation and productivity in stores in the long-run.

What advantages do robots provide for in-store cleaning and hygiene?
AMRs are exceptional for cleaning tasks because they provide consistent, measurable, and reliable work, which ultimately provides a safer environment for workers and customers. Robots offload the time-consuming task of floor cleaning, giving time back to workers so they can focus on deep cleaning and other tasks robots can’t do, such as disinfecting and wiping down surfaces and making sure customers follow social distancing guidelines. 

The BrainOS-powered robots also allow retailers to set and meet compliance standards when it comes to their daily cleaning routine. Using cloud-based operational metrics, the AMRs can accurately measure things like cleaning coverage and time spent cleaning per day. Those metrics provided by the robots enable store managers to track the completed work, compare data against their compliance targets, and optimize cleaning quality and consistency.

How can robotic technology help retailers get products from the back of the store to the shelf?
A major ongoing challenge for retailers—one that has been exacerbated by the COVID-19 health crisis—is maintaining adequate stock levels in the face of soaring demand from grocery store consumers. The process of moving inventory and goods from the back of a truck, to the stockroom, and then out to store shelves, is a laborious and time-consuming process that requires employees to haul heavy, stock-laden carts back and forth multiple times. 

The autonomous delivery tug powered by BrainOS is intended to help retailers address these restocking challenges by providing safe and efficient point-to-point stock delivery. The autonomous delivery tug can move up to 1,000 pounds of stock at a time with the push of a button. This results in less wear and tear on employees, enabling more focus on new customer health and safety requirements, and encourages social distancing by enabling workers to stay in separate zones.

The BrainOS-powered autonomous delivery tugs don’t require any custom infrastructure or specialized training for the end-user. They leverage a unique ‘teach and repeat’ methodology, which means a human operator trains the robots on which routes to take. The operator manually drives the routes once so that the robots can learn them and then repeat them autonomously moving forward. 

This simplifies deployment and allows the operator to make adjustments on the fly to changes in-store layout. We equip the robots with cameras, advanced sensors, and sophisticated AI technology so that they can scan and perceive the environment while operating, and execute the routes without bumping into people and obstacles. Similar to the cleaning robots, users can leverage cloud-based performance metrics in real-time to get reports on delivery usage, routes, and drop-offs. 

Initial Brain Corp estimates indicate that retailers could save on average up to $100,000 per year per location using the autonomous delivery tug. This includes between 6-12 hours per day in transport labor savings, as well as reduced risk and staff turnover costs.

What is driving so many grocery retailers to pilot robotic micro-fulfillment solutions?
Consumers’ behavior and expectations are always changing and the COVID-19 pandemic has accelerated many of these trends. Consumers want faster delivery times and more options for online shopping, and retailers need to streamline their entire supply chain in order to keep up with demand and stay competitive. Robots, specifically AMRs, help retailers increase efficiency and productivity and improve operational processes in micro-fulfillment centers, assisting with tasks such as delivering goods to workers who are packing and shipping online orders. 

We’re currently exploring these solutions with our manufacturing partners UniCarriers Americas and Dane Technologies. We’re examining the opportunity for AMRs for use in warehouses and micro-fulfillment centers to help retailers solve automation challenges and improve their supply chains.

What role do you see robots playing in retail in the post-pandemic world?
I think retailers and other businesses will come out of this crisis with a different perspective on cleanliness, automation, and robots. Instead of viewing robotics purely through an investment lens, they’ll view them as vital for long-term success. 

This pandemic has made retailers recognize the immense value robots have in alleviating demands on workers, smoothing variability in day-to-day operations, increasing productivity, and helping complete mission-critical tasks—from floor cleaning to understanding what needs to be stocked, and delivering it to that location. AMRs are proving that they can deliver much-needed support for retail workers now and over the long term.”

I believe cleanliness, beyond aesthetics, will remain an important component of the customer experience. As we’ve seen in the last few months, retailers are using BrainOS-powered cleaning robots more often during daytime hours—133% more compared to 2019—showing their commitment and investment in cleaning to shoppers. With a new standard for cleanliness, we can expect retailers to use them frequently in the future. Retailers will have to continue to prove that they’re providing a safe and clean environment for customers and workers, and robots will help them deliver that next level of clean—a consistent, measurable, and visible clean that people can count on and trust.