Retail, like healthcare, education, and so many other aspects of daily life, have been changing fast as various technologies develop and mature. Efficiency in batteries and motors are exponentially ahead of where they were 10 years ago, as is connectivity in the form of Wi-Fi and 5/6G. Tremendous compute power now sits in the cloud and at the edge, further reducing the need for power-hungry and costly onboard compute. Once unthinkably complex devices now sit in the palms of our hands, merely an extension of cloud computing enabled by high-power-density batteries and highly efficient communication. Retail is now in the business of instant gratification. Browse on your mobile device while you’re having a coffee on the bus. One click and your order appears on your doorstep in half an hour.
But what’s behind all that? Is it just a slick app on your phone? Retail is now truly partitioned: retail and e-commerce. When you order online, a retailer sends a picker to walk 100s of steps to pick your item from a discreet location on a shelf. Sure, they use some technology like a mobile scanner or PDA (we’re not in the dark ages), but the laws of physics limit the throughput and density of these traditional systems. Aisles for people walking require space. People can only walk so fast. And when an item is picked from a shelf, a gap in shelf space remains until it’s refilled.
E-commerce robotics flips this equation on its head. Instead of the person finding the inventory, which they can maybe do 40 times per hour, why not have the inventory go to the person? The picker can then stand at a comfortable workstation and pick items at up to 600 picks per hour. This is what robots do. And much more.
Robots are driving efficiency that breaks the iron triangle of cost-speed-accuracy inherent to manual systems. With automation, e-commerce not only competes with brick-and-mortar stores where customers have to visit, pick their item and then bring it home, using time and fuel in the process, but actually can do so often at a lower price to the customer while at the same time delivering a superior experience. E-commerce is a disruptive technology in and of itself due to the incredible efficiency realized by the application of artificial intelligence to predict customer behaviors and stock inventory accordingly, and end-to-end software and hardware that behave more like an organism than a machine.
Technology continues to get closer and closer to the retail customer. We used to drive to the store to collect our items, and often dealt with opening hours, traffic, out-of-stocks, and wasted trips. The shopping app on our mobile device connects us seamlessly to the vast efficiency and power of a global machine that's driven by software and hardware automation. The fact that a simple click brings all this to you is a testament to visionary leadership and amazing engineering.
Soon your orders will be delivered by flying or ground-based robots, and the chain will be complete, but the drive for more efficient, disruptive and elegant technology will continue.
Luke Lee is Head of Marketing, Americas, Hai Robotics, the pioneer of autonomous case-handling robotic system which provides intelligent, efficient, flexible, and customizable warehouse automation.