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Walmart rolls out autonomous forklifts

Walmart automated forklift
Walmart is following up a successful automated forklift pilot.

Walmart is deploying 19 autonomous forklifts across four high-tech distribution centers.

After a 16-month proof of concept at the original high-tech Walmart distribution center in Brooksville, Fla., the discount giant is rolling out the self-driving forklifts developed by Fox Robotics, with the potential for further deployment as it evaluates the benefits to its distribution center associates and operations.

Associates are being trained to operate the Fox Robotics “FoxBot” autonomous forklift, which is designed to fully automate the warehouse loading dock. According to Walmart, so far the forklift solution is working well enough for it to invest growth capital for a minority stake in the autonomous technology provider.

How it works

Walmart says it has found FoxBot autonomous forklifts to be the “perfect complement” to the automated storage and retrieval system within its high-tech distribution facilities.

Trucks arrive at a Walmart distribution center for unloading, and using AI-powered machine vision and dynamic planning, the forklifts safely and accurately unload pallets and ferry them to be inducted into the automated storage and retrieval system, which catalogues and stores Walmart’s goods. 

Instead of unloading the pallets manually, associates become conductors – considering the best, most efficient way to unload trailers based on their own experience. 

"Our new autonomous forklift program with Fox Robotics is proof positive that when you empower associates, embrace innovation and welcome new opportunities, you’ll see growth for the business and its people," Shayne Wahlmeier, VP of innovation & automation, Walmart, said in a corporate blog post.

Walmart high-tech order fulfillment – a closer look

Walmart’s high-tech order fulfillment system, developed in partnership with intelligent automation technology provider Knapp, operates following five steps:

  • Unload: Sellers and suppliers send merchandise in cases to a fulfillment center. As the cases arrive, associates unload the trailers and place cases onto a conveyor belt where they’re routed to receiving.
  • Receive: At receiving, an associate breaks the case apart and places the individual items into a tote. The tote is fed into a massive, automated storage system where a shuttle transports it to one of millions of designated locations. The storage system is designed to account for every square-inch, spanning from floor to ceiling in a custom-built structure designed to hold the inventory.
  • Pick: When a customer places an online order, the system goes into action, retrieving their items and shuttling the needed totes to an associate at a picking station. According to Walmart, previously associates would have walked up to nine miles per day, picking items from multiple floors of shelving spread out over hundreds of thousands of square feet of space.
  • Pack: Simultaneously, a custom box is created to fit the exact measurements of the order. In the pack area, Walmart estimates associates can assemble up to four orders at once and send packages to be shipped in less than 30 minutes after the customer clicks to order.
  • Ship: The completed order is then automatically taped, labeled, and routed to its designated zone, where it’s then shipped to its final destination.

Based in Bentonville, Ark., Walmart Inc. operates more than 10,500 stores and numerous e-commerce websites in 19 countries.

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