Robots are stacking store shelves in Japan

Robot Model-T for retail
Photo: Telexistence


Robots fill the shelves at various neighbourhood supermarkets in Japan. After an initial trial, franchise chain FamilyMart is so enthusiastic that it wants to employ at least twenty by 2022.


Putting away tins and bowls

Two of the largest chains of neighbourhood supermarkets in Japan, FamilyMart and Lawson, are trying out robots as shelf fillers. This week Lawson deployed its first robot in a convenience shop in Tokyo, FamilyMart tested the same robots last month and already plans to have them working in 20 of its stores by 2022.

The robot, called Model-T, was developed by the Japanese startup Telexistence and can reach a height of up to two metres. Equipped with cameras, microphones and sensors, it can fill shelves with products such as bottles, cans and bowls. "It is able to capture and place objects of different shapes and sizes in different places," says Matt Komatsu, head of business development and operations at Telexistence, to CNN Business.

Robots are already being experimented with at other supermarket chains, including Carrefour and Walmart, but they are not yet capturing (delicate) objects. These are robots that welcome customers or scan and inventory racks. According to producer Telexistence, robots in automated warehouses are also much more limited in their movements. The fact that Model-T puts products in the shelves with its own hands is therefore a new step forward.


Remotely controlled

Even if there are currently disadvantages to the feline looking robots: at the moment they still have to be controlled remotely by humans, until, with the help of artificial intelligence, they can learn the right actions themselves and imitate human behaviour. It is also better not to give them soft products, such as fruit or bread, in their three-fingered hands at the moment. Moreover, what people do in five seconds takes the robot eight seconds at the moment.

Nevertheless, the Japanese strongly believe in the potential of the technology, especially in view of the country's acute labour shortage. With a population with one in three over the age of 65, it is quite a challenge to find shelf stackers. Even remotely controlled, the system is still interesting, FamilyMart says, as it allows one person to fill shelves in several shops at the same time.

Telexistence responds to this by not selling the robots but renting them out, at a price that, according to the start-up, is comparable to an employee's wage cost. Komatsu also points out that the operation could even take place from low-wage countries, since the 'pilot' can control the robots from anywhere in the world thanks to VR goggles, a joystick and the cameras and sensors on the robot itself. Thanks to the microphone, it is even possible to talk to customers and staff in the stores.