Walmart Rolls out the Alphabots

Walmart, the world’s second largest retailer, is trying out robots at one of its New Hampshire stores.  The robots, called Alphabots, are teamed up with a large warehouse space. They are essentially self-driving shopping carts which will go around the warehouse and collect items from online orders. Humans will put the orders together, adding in any items that the robots can’t pick or can’t be trusted to pick without damage.

Shoppers who have placed their orders online will drive through a carwash-style lane in the store’s warehouse area. Their groceries will be delivered by a smiling “personal shopper” who no longer has to walk around the warehouse gathering the goods.

Alert Innovation is Walmart’s partner in this initiative. They’ve created Alphabots to work as the only moving part in the system. There are no conveyor belts involved. Instead, the Alphabots run on rails. They can travel vertically or horizontally, accepting items from the storage areas which double as rails. The items are stored in “totes” and the Alphabots move the totes with a single-drive motor.

The simplicity of this mechanism should reduce maintenance, downtime, and other issues.

Supercapacitors power the Alphabots. They recharge whenever they move vertically, solving the typical power supply issues for mobile robots. If an Alphabot fails, it can simply be pulled out of the system and replaced. The rest of the Alphabots continue their work.

The Alphabots’ human collaborators stand at four workstations in the New Hampshire facility. They lift items from the picking totes and put them into the order totes, ready for customer pickup. Alphabots move on as soon as the picker’s hand is out of range, so the speed is controlled automatically by the pickers. This can reduce a lot of the stress of the typical conveyor-managed line. Even with the human component, the Alphabots can complete an average 25-item order in less than six minutes.

The speed of the Alphabots as pickers relative to the humans could result in lower numbers of human workers required to fulfill online orders. The personal shoppers will still choose produce for customers.

Alert Innovation sees the Alphabots as the beginning of the Novastore, a combination of online order and in-store pickup with the old-fashioned grocer who collected customers’ purchases for them in a more leisurely time. Since Alphabots can fulfill an order in six minutes or so, walk-in customers can amuse themselves by picking out their own produce while their orders are collected.

This may be an example of a practical new application for automation.

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