Tuesday Jan 06, 2015

Retail Robots

I thought it fitting to kick the new year off with a futuristic topic, and what more futuristic than robots?  Lowe's hit the news back in October with their OSHbots, a robot deployed in their Orchard Supply Hardware store in San Jose, CA.  As a sales assistant, the robot provides customers with product and inventory information using voice response, much like Siri.  It navigates the store using collision avoidance technologies like its 3D camera.

Similarly, an Aloft hotel in Cupertino, CA deployed a robot that navigates the hotel and delivers items to rooms when requested by guests.  Need extra towels or perhaps another pillow?  SaviOne, your robotic bellhop, will deliver it to your door.  At Carnegie Mellon, inventory counts in the bookstore are handed by AndyVision, an autonomous robot that scans shelves looking for out-of-stock situations.

At around $150,000 per robot, these solutions are unlikely to be cost-effective yet, but as the technology matures and demand increases costs are bound to come down.  A mix of humans and robots in stores doesn't seem so impossible now, as voice and vision technology continues to evolve.  But we're still in the novelty phase with mainstream adoption several years off.  In the meantime, look for small, innovative examples popping up in California and Japan.

Thursday Aug 18, 2011

By Your Command

At home we use a Mint robot to clean our floors.  We used to use a Scooba robot but we found the Mint robot was smarter and provided better coverage of the floor.  Its not perfect, but it does 80% of the work and that's a big help.  In the post I did a couple days ago, I noticed that mobile robots were listed on the hype curve and starting thinking about robots for retail.  Could my Mint robot help the retail industry?

By far the best example is picking in the warehouse for e-commerce orders.  Mick Mountz of Kiva Systems used to work for Webvan, the online grocery store.  He tells the story of picking an .$89 can of beans at a cost of $1 -- thus the demise of Webvan.  The typical retail warehouse was designed to deliver items in bulk to stores, not pick single items from here and there to complete an order.

After Webvan went under, Mick thought about the problem and considered the perfect solution would be assigning a no-cost worker to each item.  The picker could then simply yell the name of the product and the worker would run the item over and drop it in the box.  Since workers aren't free, robots seemed like a good alternative.

Kiva Systems has several big retailers such as Gap, ToysRus, and Walgreens running its automated warehouse robots.  These robots intelligently transport the shelves of products to the pickers, thus making the process much more efficient.  Watch this Zappos video to see the robots in action.

The big question is when will people be ready to interact with robots in stores.  Since people are already used to dealing with kiosks, perhaps the next step is making those kiosks mobile.  In much the same way the Kiva robots bring products to pickers in the warehouse, perhaps mobile kiosks can be summoned by customers to provide product information, pricing, offers, etc.

GeckoSystems, a robot designer for the healthcare industry, is considering just such possibilities. They want to provide a mobile kiosk that provides product information and also provides mobile video surveillance.  Starting with touchscreen technology initially, they could eventually use voice recognition to answer questions about products such ratings, alternate color/size, promotions, etc.  While not answering questions, they patrol the aisles where video cameras can't always see, deterring theft (and maybe even cleaning the floors!).

Someday you might just be purchasing that tie from a Cylon.


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