Humans are simpler, according to Walmart, dismissing its robot employees. In early 2021, however, Silicon Valley was the scene of a landmark event: for the first time in history, two robots unwittingly crossed paths in the busy Californian traffic. What does the future really hold for robots?
Once upon a time a robot crossed the street
In early 2021, a village in California experienced a historic moment when a car stopped at an intersection for a pedestrian. Well, not exactly a pedestrian. It was actually a delivery robot that crossed the street. Funnily enough, there was no one in the car to witness this peculiar sight, because the car had no driver. This one small step for two robots was a giant leap for humankind.
Still, after the first wave of robotisation, many robots have lost their jobs. The futuristic robotic bartenders and chefs that Silicon Valley was so fond of a few years ago have almost all vanished. At Walmart, the robot army went from a thousand to zero when the chain decided not to use self-propelled shelf scanners anymore.
Not long before, a rosy future had been envisaged with autonomous robots cleaning the shops, scanning inventory levels and checking prices on the shelves. But Walmart found ‘other and simpler ways’ to meet their needs: humans. A greater insult to the robots or to the ‘simpler’ flesh-and-blood employees?
Half of Chinese cars will be autonomous
Aren’t robots all that great after all? We are now learning which tasks robots are good at and which tasks they cannot do well. The first flushes of enthusiasm for new technologies are always followed by some level of disillusion when the limits of the technology are revealed and over-eager robot adopters feel let down. However, in its yearly ‘hype cycle’, Gartner observes this phase is followed by a period of maturity when suitable applications are selected and expectations are adjusted.
Today, the new rising stars are self-driving trucks and vans, human-like robots and robots that can read emotions. In two US states, self-driving trucks are on the roads. They replenish neighbourhood supermarkets in Arkansas, and in Louisiana, they shuttle online orders over 30km between a supermarket and its pick-up locations.
In Houston, on the other hand, you stand a good chance of getting Domino’s pizzas and Kroger groceries delivered to your door by an autonomous delivery vehicle, while robot taxis are no longer an uncommon sight in China. The Chinese government has mandated that within five years at least half of new cars sold in China must have at least some self-driving capabilities.
Buzzing through the warehouse
Most of all, robots have really found their place in warehouses. The robot distribution centre of Ocado, co-owned by Marks & Spencer, has collaborations with Kroger, Auchan and Casino amongst others. Ocado’s ‘hive’ is truly remarkable. Instead of stacking products up to the ceiling, they are stacked underground in compartments. Automated robots drive criss-cross over the upper grid and pick up the necessary articles from each compartment.
Human workers merely finish orders by boxing the items, ready to go on a delivery round with the truck. ‘We want the whole end-to-end operation to eventually be autonomous, from the receipt of stock in the warehouse to the customer’s door,’ explains chief technology officer Alex Harvey. So Ocado’s 10 million pound investment in a software developer for self-driving trucks needs no further explanation.
Parcels falling from the sky
Yet again, the Chinese were first in the race. As early as 2017, e-commerce platform JD.com signed an agreement with Shaanxi province to build China’s largest logistics network with low-flying drones spanning a 300-kilometre radius. JD also claims to have built the world’s first automated and unmanned warehouse in Shanghai, which increased efficiency tenfold while cutting costs by 30%.
Not until 2022 has Walmart announced a genuine drone delivery programme, which will nonetheless cover no less than 4 million households in six different American states. Clearly, nobody is pulling the plug on the robot revolution. On the contrary, now that robots are descending from the realm of science fiction and getting their feet firmly on the ground, they are becoming more relevant than ever. The less we see or hear about them, the more they are getting a grip on the retail landscape and our daily lives behind the scenes.
This article is an abridged excerpt from the book The Future of Shopping: Re-set Re-tail Re-made, the brand new sequel to the award-winning retail guide (Management Book of the Year 2018). Want to read more about how robots, the Chinese, blockchain and much more are profoundly reshaping the future of retail.