From warehouse automation to artificial intelligence at the POS: robotic solutions of increasing importance for retail

Automation and robotic solutions are on the advance in retail. In some stores robots are already employed at the POS – not only as eye-catchers but also as shopping assistants accompanying shoppers to the desired product. To retailers robotics are currently of great interest especially for efficiency and cost-saving reasons as well as to reduce the intra-logistics workload of employees.

Over the past decade retailers have invested in their intra-company logistics and especially in the automation of recurring routine processes such as warehousing and in-house transport and order picking. At present, we see more robotic applications with artificial intelligence that help to handle more complex, changing workflows. The use of adaptable robots now resolves the previous conflict that automation is at the expense of flexibility.

Approximately 10% of the retailers surveyed in the current study “Einsatz von Automatisierung und Robotik im Handel” (Use of Automation and Robotics in Retail) by the EHI Retail Institute, Cologne, states that they use order-picking robots in intra-logistics such as robots that take the merchandise to the picker. In addition to this, some retailers use sorting and palletising robots but do not rate these as robotics since these systems are not intelligent enough in their view.

Professor Michael Feindt, physicist and professor at the Karlsruhe Institut für Technologie (KIT), explained at this year’s Robotics4Retail conference of EHI: “In retail Artificial Intelligence is hard to beat when it comes to decision-making about frequently recurring processes as well as repeat orders or price mark-downs.” Feindt works out: “40,000 articles in 1,000 outlets handled by day add up to 40 million decisions. These can be taken by artificial intelligence in a much faster way that is more targeted and – in contrast with humans – not affected by any emotions.”

Technological progress has allowed robots to make inroads in retail. However, their use only translates as success once employees accept the new technology. Employees must be able to realise the reduced workload that their machine colleagues bring. The aim is by no means to replace humans 100%. Quite on the contrary, thanks to their robot colleagues’ support shop assistants will have more time for their shoppers. “In 10 years from now robots will definitely be an established feature at the POS. They will take over routine jobs such as cleaning and stock taking,” says Dr. Andreas Bley, CEO of MetraLabs GmbH, in his forecast.

Even today we find first robotic projects at the Point of Sale; some 14% of retailers use customer-service robots the majority of which serve marketing purposes. Just under 28% could imagine such applications in future. “German retailers take an interest but by international standards are still somewhat more reticent to adopt robotic solutions at the POS,” says Dr. Bley.  MetraLabs will present robots at EuroCIS that can handle POS tasks all autonomously. “TORY will be able to not only complete RFID-based stock taking in future but also capture availability data in food retail. We will also bring some surprise innovations in view of cleaning robots,” adds Dr. Bley.

Nicolas Weik, CEO at Robo Retail GmbH, is convinced that “everywhere commerce” will drive robotics: “Shoppers want to buy anytime round the clock regardless of the device or whether it’s on or offline. And payment formats no longer play a role here. At the same time, shoppers want to have the products instantly thereby prompting — same day — last-mile delivery. Companies will have to be omnipresent offering their services and products to customers 24/7 and 365 days a year. In line with this demand the robot theme will explode over the next 10 years.”

Robo Retail will be launching a novel, disruptive marketing and sales platform at EuoCIS: “Packaging type and units will be rendered obsolete. All consumer goods as well as food can be included with targeted temperature monitoring. Our claim is maximum area capacity. On 15 m² over 1,300 articles can be stored,” explains Weik. Since no staff is required this solution can be used regardless of store opening times, allowing shoppers to shop round the clock.

These and other robotic solutions as well as the complete palette of innovative IT solutions specifically for retail will be on show at EuroCIS 2018.

EuroCIS 2018 in Halls 9 and 10 of the Düsseldorf Exhibition Centre will be open to trade visitors daily from Tuesday, 24 February 2016 until Thursday, 1 March 2018, from 10.00 am to 6.00 pm. Day tickets are EUR 30 (EUR 20 online in advance), and two-day tickets are EUR 45 (EUR 35 online in advance). University students and trainees pay EUR 12.00. Each ticket includes free transport to and from Düsseldorf Exhibition Centre on local VRR buses, trams and trains.

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