For a fresh look at how robots are changing grocery stores, Hormel Foods asked journalist Michael Shapiro to investigate the evolving role of automation in the grocery and foodservice industries.
A slender, six-foot-tall, googly-eyed robot named Marty gained global notoriety recently when it escaped a grocery store in Pennsylvania. The robot rolled smoothly through the parking lot, deftly avoiding cars, until a human store employee corralled Marty, who did not resist, and steered the runaway machine back into the store where it went back to work.
The widely reported incident brought attention to grocery robots, which are increasingly operating in stores and distribution warehouses. Robots are scanning shelves to monitor inventory and alerting store employees when a product needs restocking. They’re cleaning floors and reporting spills, debris and other potential hazards to store employees (this is Marty’s job), and they’re helping stores remain hygienic, which is especially relevant in the wake of the Covid pandemic.
Robots are enabling customers to avoid the frustration that can occur when a customer goes to a store only to find that what they wanted is sold out. Beyond the grocery store, robots are assisting with food prep — they’re now able to make a pizza, a hamburger and a cup of coffee; they can even mix and shake a cocktail — and some companies have run trials with robot food deliveries whereby little vehicles roll down sidewalks to bring online restaurant orders to a customer’s door.
Via CNET on YouTube
Grocery chains are waking up to the value of robots and seeing how they can help streamline the customer experience, says Jonah Bliss, publisher of the online newsletter, OttOmate, a guide to the future of food robotics and automation.
“The labor market has just gotten so disrupted in the last couple of years, where they (grocery stores) can’t fill positions; they can’t get people to stay in these positions,” Bliss said. “I think they (grocery chains) are being forced to reassess … like, ‘we have to do something different now.’”
Bliss says many of the more mundane tasks can be better handled by robots. “In an ideal world, that frees up humans to do more humane tasks, front-of-the-house stuff where you can actually greet the customers, interact with them and solve problems, and not just be a cog in the machine,” he added.
Collaborating With Robot Helpers
While robots may take over some traditionally human tasks, automation more often leads to job transformation: Humans can collaborate with robot assistants in a symbiotic partnership to maximize productivity, Bliss says. Human employees can be retrained and redeployed in creative and fulfilling ways, especially in offering customer service.
Badger Technologies, Marty’s maker, says it has deployed hundreds of robots in stores since 2018. Badger CEO BJ Santiago says the company’s automated shelf scans are 95% accurate, far higher than typical human accuracy rates.
“The ability to report on out-of-stock and incorrectly priced products with more than 95% accuracy proved pivotal to elevating store execution, lowering operational costs and increasing store profits,” Santiago said via email. “Moreover, the addition of product location data enabled stores to integrate daily updates into their mobile shopping apps, helping customers, online order pickers and associates quickly find all products.”
Robots that patrol a store’s aisles or warehouses provide “actionable data” and “valuable trending analytics,” Santiago says, which have become “critical assets in our retail customers’ quests to better understand customer buying trends and preferences, forecast commodities, prioritize replenishment and manage suppliers with greater precision and agility.”
Robots Take On Tough Tasks
In Japan last year a grocery chain announced plans to bring shelf-stocking robots to its 300 stores. The plan is for the robots to work inside the refrigerated sections of the stores, restocking chilled beverages. Japan is facing a labor shortage so the country is looking to robots to pick up the slack. And the robots, called TX SCARA, work just fine in the chilly, refrigerated environments.
For now, though, the biggest leap in robot grocery assistance is robots moving up from floor care (scrubbing and vacuuming) to inventory management. Warehouses today are being built to take advantage of robot automation, says Gavin Donley, head of marketing for Brain Corp., whose robots are now in use in one of the country’s largest grocery outlets.
Robots are taking care of “tasks that can be quite boring for people,” Donley says, liberating humans to “sell and serve the customer.” However, some people haven’t appreciated seeing robots in grocery aisles. One shopper tweeted that Marty “creeps me out” — another said he contemplated trying to tip Marty over. While the job of ensuring robots move attentively through busy store aisles is a challenge, safety is their highest priority, Santiago says.
Among the other tasks robots and automation are streamlining:
Checkout: Self-checkout systems have been in use for years, but grocery chains are now experimenting with smart shopping carts that register each item as you put it in. A startup called Veeve has a device equipped with a barcode scanner that can be inserted into shopping carts to enable customers to skip the checkout line. Originally Veeve built an entire cart equipped with a scale; now they’re offering an insert that can work with almost any cart. One U.S. retail chain is building its own carts for use in its stores.
Automated food and beverage prep: As the demand for more efficient operations increases, business owners are turning to robotic food prep. A company called Picnic (www.picnicworks.com), whose motto is “Make pizza, save dough,” sells a pizza machine that precisely and consistently measures out sauce, cheese, pepperoni and up to three additional diced toppings.
Andrew Simmons, owner of a pizza restaurant called Mamma Ramona’s in San Diego, bought the three-piece Picnic pizza maker. “I know exactly what it costs to make a 12-inch pepperoni pizza,” Simmons told OttOmate, adding that it functions as an assembly line. “Consistency is a big selling point,” says OttOmate’s Bliss, as is the reduction of food waste.
Meanwhile, a robot from Richtech named Adam — which looks like it could have helmed a bar in the old cartoon series “The Jetsons” — mixes drinks with two multi-jointed arms. Celebrity Kendall Jenner employed Adam last year for the launch of her branded tequila.
Delivery: Major food delivery companies are experimenting with last-mile robotic vehicles that bring food from a restaurant or grocery to a customer’s home or office. For several years starting in 2017, knee-high delivery vehicles from Kiwibot rolled along Berkeley’s sidewalks, waiting more patiently to cross streets than the local pedestrians. Some found the robots cute, others saw them as a nuisance, and one person kidnapped a Kiwibot and stashed it in his trunk. Berkeley police liberated it. But last-mile delivery has proved tricky for even specialists such as FedEx, which abandoned its delivery bot trial program last year.
Via The Telegraph on YouTube
As sophisticated as grocery and foodservice robots have become, they still have a long way to go, especially with robot selection of food for online grocery orders, says Donley of Brain Corp. Human pickers are far more “qualified at picking out the best, most ripe avocado than a robot would be right now. But where we can help is saying, ‘Yes, this store does have avocados available.’ And therefore this store can help fulfill the order.”
Bliss concurs: At the moment, robots are assisting human “pickers” to fulfill online grocery orders, he said, “but someday robots will be able to do most of the tasks involved in pick-and-pack operations. While that’s unlikely to gain much traction in the next two to three years, especially as they struggle with perishables, we’ll see broader implementation towards the end of the decade. Picking the right apple (or tomato) and not damaging the produce is still kind of a tricky thing.”
Dystopian thinkers from Aldous Huxley to Rod Serling have imagined worlds where robots displace people. More likely is a far more symbiotic future, a place where Marty and his descendants will work in partnership with people. “And hopefully, Donley says, “that leads to a better experience for both the customers and the associates.”