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Supply Chain News: As Grocers Move to Automate In-Store Order Picking, Technology Seems Certain to Make its Way Into DCs


 

Ahold Accelerating Development of Store Picking Robots Due to Labor Concerns

May 18, 2020
 SCDigest Editorial Staff
     

A number of robotic technology companies have been developing systems to automate the so-called "piece picking" process – selection of individual items for a customer's order. (See More Evidence Piece Picking Robots are almost Here.)

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It is not yet known if the robots will reduce Ahold's operating costs – but even if they don't, they may be needed in the face of labor challenges.


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For several years, Amazon sponsored a Robotic Picking Challenge, in which teams from around the globe competed to see which system could best select an eclectic group of items from static shelving and place them into totes. And picking a wide variety of different items is a real challenge, requiring different approaches and even different grabber mechanisms attached to robotic arms for different types of goods.

But these efforts were all geared around piece picking in distribution centers, with most of the focus on ecommerce order fulfillment.

But it appears the coronavirus crisis is changing that dynamic, just as it is changing the thinking is virtually all areas of supply chain and business.

The Wall Street Journal reported last week that Dutch grocery giant Ahold Delhaize, which has several US grocery brands, is feverishly working on robotic picking for online grocery orders fulfilled by its stores.

It is part of an aggressive overall technology investment that also includes robots for store cleaning.

The issue: concerns workers may simply not be there to do the work manually.

"All the researchers said this Covid situation is so urgent, we see a direct application for our work right now because there's scarcity of people who can work in stores," Bart Voorn, the Dutch grocery giant's director of data, artificial intelligence and robotics, told the Journal.

The Ahold vision is for a mobile platform upon which a robotic arm will be mounted, and pick items from shelves and place them into totes. The system will rely heavily on artificial intelligence, developed in part through its collaboration with universities in the Netherlands

The board of the company's two AI labs moved up the timeline and assigned additional researchers to the projects because of the health crisis. Ahold hopes to test advanced prototypes in coming months.

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The Journal story says Ahold Delhaize's AI and robotics experts are fine-tuning the arm that will be used to process store orders to operate safely around employees and be able to identify and hold a large variety of SKUs. The robotic arm is attached to a rectangular base and can have a hand and other grippers.

Ahold is currently developing navigation algorithms to move the robotic arm around complex environments. Mobility is a particular challenge because the robots will operate in crowded grocery aisles.

Ahold Delhaize's AI team is also focusing on improving the robotic arm's ability to identify and hold different products without damaging them.

"Fruits are extremely challenging for a robot to handle because they're very fragile and have an unusual shape," Voorn told the Journal.

The plan is for the robots to not only pick items for customer orders but also replenish store shelves as well.

It is not yet known if the robots will reduce Ahold's operating costs – but even if they don't, they may be needed in the face of labor challenges.

Of course, if the pressures of the virus situation lead to accelerated progress for developing piece-picking robots in stores, that technology could quickly move back upstream into distribution centers as well, arguably a less challenging scenario given less human congestion and a more controlled environment.

If successful, will Ahold sell its invention to other retailers and distribution centers?

That's one question the Journal did not ask.

Do you think we will successfu piece picking robots soon? Let us know your thoughts at the Feedback section below.


 
 

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