Monday, November 23, 2015

The Next Frontier for Robots? Grocery Stores

We've been talking about robotic hamburger machines for years now, but now comes word that the next frontier is your grocery store.  Meet the Simbe Robotics autonomous robot, Tally.
Simbe Robotics developed the robot in response to the billions of dollars retailers lose annually as a result of out-of-stock items, empty shelves, and other in-store inconsistencies. Currently retailers rely on their IT systems and manual labor to account for product availability which has proved to be costly and inaccurate.

The mobile robot autonomously scans large retail environments to capture, report, and analyze the state and availability of merchandise and help ensure compliance standard placement of products on shelves in order to maximize sales. Tally performs the repetitive tasks of auditing shelves for out-of-stock items, low stock items, misplaced items, and pricing errors, in an attempt to make sure customers leave satisfied and the company doesn’t lose money.
They have a video of the small robot  (about 38" tall and 30 pounds) patrolling the store on the Simbe Robotics website.  As it rolls down the aisle, it examines every item noting those needed restock, items in the wrong place, or those that need a price correction.  Tally then sends the data to "the cloud".  You know from your own experience that when you go looking for an item in the store and it's not on the shelves, you usually don't linger around trying to find one, you move on.  That's a lost opportunity for the store.  With a small, nimble robot constantly on patrol, they can direct humans to do the tasks requiring hands.  The robot is autonomous and can navigate the store on its own, then find its way back to its charging station when its batteries are getting low. 

In my mind, the big question is why do the stores need Tally?  If everything coming into stock is ID'ed when it left the warehouse, and the ID tracked from the receiving deck (to rule out theft off the truck) to the shelf, and then ID'ed when the checkout robot scans it, shouldn't the stores know the contents of everything at all times?   Or is this too idealized?


  1. It is a short step from here to having the robot place orders for items as they run low. From there, it is not to difficult to see a robot stocking shelves.
    It could even make robotic grocery shopping a possibility:
    You order food with an app, the robot picks the items and bags them, and they are ready for pickup as soon as you arrive at the store.

  2. Some twenty five years ago I worked for a major designer-manufacturer of grocery store front-end checkout systems: cash registers, scanners/scales, back-end systems supporting inventory management systems for tracking inventory levels back when "just-in-time" deliveries were all the rage. Who knows what the heck is going on now with self-service lanes, new generations of security tags for anti-theft protection, etc. but I find it hard to believe that corporations can cost justify robots. On the other hand, with personnel downsizing (we all know how much employees cost these days) the job probably just isn't getting done period. In any case, the robot can only do what it is programmed to do. GIGO. Garbage In, Garbage Out. Who is going to keep the bar code lists updated, software versions, etc. current when these functions keep getting outsourced to people who know nothing about the business?

  3. My memory is fuzzy on it, but IIRC some years back there was an attempt to automate the grocery thing: shoppers would be given an RFID fob at the door and wander the aisles where one of each item available was on display, swipe the fob to indicate they wanted it (can't remember what was supposed to happen if they wanted a quantity), then plug the fob in at the unmanned register and pay. Their groceries would be pulled from stock by a minimum wage drone (I guess the next step would be automating the stock retrieval) and waiting for them at the door. They could access their account via Al Gore's Intertubes, review past purchases for re-purchase, do the order/pay, select a pickup time and swing by to get their stuff. Can't remember who tried it, or if it was real or just a biz plan. I'd guess that since "shopping" has become a social event there isn't too much demand to take the "social" out of it.

    As for the robot stock checker, clever concept but it begs for a wise-ass 12-year-old to put tape over its sensor. I'd think, assuming RFID tags got cheap enough to replace 1D bar codes, a decent sensor/database system would do the job better.

  4. Considering how expensive it is to employ people - especially if the Left succeeds in forcing $12 or $15 minimum wage rates in addition to medical insurance, pay for holidays, sick days, personnel issues (sexual harassment or claims thereof, training costs, the expense of replacing those who quit or are fired, worker's comp costs, etc., etc. - replacing some staff with a machine that can do (possibly more accurately and efficiently) what an expensive live-hire would do, it could be a real cost savings to a company.

    That being said, I'm curious how a 38" robot can scan shelves above itself and be able to tell if there is stock beyond the first row of cans or boxes.

  5. Probably the same way people in those motorized shopping carts do it, Reg T. Bump the shelf hard enough, and you get to see ALL the stuff on those upper shelves...

  6. Good one, Mark :-) [Electronic voice]: "Clean-up on isle 3."

  7. I don't know about other grocery stores, but the one I shop at runs out of certain items if I don't get there (on Saturday or Sunday) by noonish. Every time.