NEW YORK — While driverless cars and cashierless stores may still be works in progress, mass retailers are moving ahead toward fully automated warehouses. Albertsons Cos., Ahold Delhaize, Kroger Co. and Walmart have all made strides recently in the implementation of robotic distribution centers.
Ahold Delhaize announced just this month that it will automate picking at “robot supermarkets” juxtaposed with stores. The company is partnering with startup Takeoff, which constructs warehouses that employ robot arms to collect orders for products from beer to fruit.
The Holland-based chain’s move follows Walmart’s announcements that it would collaborate with Alert Innovation to build an automated fulfillment center in its Salem, N.H., store, and would break ground on its first high-tech distribution center for fresh and frozen groceries, in Shafter, Calif. Albertsons announced in October it was piloting an in-store robotic warehouse with Takeoff, driven by artificial intelligence. Kroger, which is partnering with online British grocer Ocado, meanwhile, is making good progress toward identifying the first three of 20 sites for its own automated warehouses.
The actions reflect the growing popularity of online grocery purchases, which are on track to hit $100 billion by 2022. Consumers are increasingly willing to buy produce and even meat via e-commerce, according to a new study from the Retail Feedback Group. Meeting the growing demand heightens the need for high-speed, low-cost picking at distribution centers.
“Investing in e-commerce directly benefits our customers, and anything that we can do to simplify their grocery shopping experience to save valuable time is a win,” said Narayan Iyengar, senior vice president of digital and e-commerce at Albertsons. “While our partnership with Takeoff technologies will streamline e-commerce fulfillment and improve our efficiencies, we’re excited that Takeoff’s AI solution will make it even easier for customers to get their groceries how and when they want. This is a major step in our commitment to being a customer-centric player in the digital food and wellness ecosystem.”
Takeoff’s hyper-local automated fulfillment center will be replenished daily. A customer will enter an order using the existing e-commerce interface, and the order will be delivered to the automated system. Takeoff will then take over the fulfillment process, using AI-enabled technology and a system of totes and conveyors to deliver the items to an Albertsons employee, who will prepare the order for the customer, greatly reducing the amount of time it takes to process individual customer orders.
Albertsons chose Takeoff because it is ready for implementation today, the model is structured to use the existing supply chain and store footprint, and it is flexible in picking various types of products. “Takeoff is a win-win for grocers and consumers across the board,” said Max Pedro, cofounder and president of Takeoff. “Our e-grocery automation is a turnkey solution that uses artificial intelligence to unlock ultimate convenience for shoppers without need of charging fees or a price premium.”
For Walmart, the high-tech DC in Shafter, set to open in the fall off 2020, will use Witron technology to process grocery perishables — produce, eggs, dairy, flowers and frozen goods. It will move 40% more product than a traditional DC, and result in fewer crushed strawberries, the company says. It will allow the retailer “to move product to stores and clubs faster so that we can better serve customers,” said Tim Cooper, senior vice president of supply chain for Walmart.
On the research front, Ahold Delhaize is collaborating with Delft University of Technology (TU Delft) in the Netherlands to expand the company’s Artificial Intelligence for Retail (AIR) Lab. The expansion comprises a robotics research program and test site for developing state-of-the-art innovations in the retail industry. This is the first expansion of the lab, an industry-academic alliance set up to conduct research into AI. By expanding its focus to robotics, AIRLab Delft will further drive innovations for daily business while building more knowledge of the intersection among retail, AI and robotics.
“The rapid advancements in AI and robotics provide us with significant opportunities to make everyday shopping even easier for our customers and develop new solutions for our warehouses and last-mile delivery,” said Ahold Delhaize president and chief executive officer Frans Muller.