Walmart said it would install a first-of-its-kind robotic picker to automate the assembly of online grocery orders at a Supercenter in Salem, N.H.
The innovation comes in partnership with the technology startup Alert Innovation and its Alphabot Automated Storage and Retrieval System (ASRS) and Automated Each-Picking System (AEPS), which the company described as automated carts that would work in an expanded and specially outfitted backroom of the store to retrieve and assemble dry goods and household items for online grocery orders. The system would free up store associates—who currently pick such orders off shelves in the store themselves—to concentrate only on selecting fresh items from in-store displays.
The move is the latest among dozens of new innovations Walmart has introduced in the past two years that utilize technology to tackle what SVP Mark Ibbotson described as “mundane and repeatable” tasks, and redeploy associates toward service. Some Walmart stores are already utilizing the Bossanova robot to inventory shelves and scan for mislabeled items, as well as an automated backroom scanner called FAST unloader that is helping speed up the process of sorting and stocking incoming inventory, for example. Walmart is also rolling out Pickup Towers in stores that store and distribute online pickup orders in the style of vending machines, rather than have store associates retrieve them themselves.
Walmart abandoned a previous test of a stand-alone automated grocery pickup station, but Ibbotson, speaking earlier this year, suggested the company was exploring a new take that would encompass the existing store's infrastructure.
The Alphabot system will require the Salem store build a 20,000-square-foot expansion to the existing backroom as part of a renovation. The expanded storeroom will house the new technology and also serve as a dedicated grocery pickup point, with drive-thru lanes for customers.
“When completed, automated mobile carts will retrieve ordered items—stored warehouse-style in this new space—then deliver them to our associates at one of four pick stations,” explained Ibbotson in a post on the retailer’s website. “Our personal shoppers will then pick, assemble and deliver orders to customers. The vast majority of grocery products we offer in-store will be fulfilled through this system, though our personal shoppers will still handpick produce and other fresh items.”
Ibbotson said Walmart intends to have Alphabot online and running by the end of the year.
Alert Innovation, based in North Billerica, Mass., described the Alphabot system as “the most capital-efficient and broadly scalable design ever developed” for automated storage and retrieval and piece-picking.
Its Alphabot system utilizes a fleet of mobile robots that operate within a multilevel storage structure.
“The bots are the only moving part—there are no lifts, conveyors or any other material-handling mechanism—hence the capital efficiency,” the company said. “The addition of a highly innovative picking workstation creates the world’s most advanced ‘goods-to-picker’ each-picking technology in which the bots themselves flow product and order containers through these workstations, where pickers transfer eaches (picked items) from product containers to order containers. Since the robots move vertically, workstations can be arrayed at multiple vertical elevations, enabling unprecedented space efficiency in high-throughput systems.”
The technology, the company said, “makes possible a new type of supermarket featuring automated service rather than self-service, which we believe will become the next paradigm in food retailing.”