Walmart unveils automated picking and packing system

Date : 10 January 2020

Walmart has introduced the automated “Alphabot” system, which picks and packs groceries at high speeds to fulfil orders for pickup and online.  The system, which has been developed exclusively for Walmart by Alert Innovation, will help Walmart to compete with Amazon and Kroger for shoppers’ online grocery spending.

Source: Walmart

 

How does the system work?

The Alphabot robots move around the shelving system both vertically and horizontally, transferring thousands of blue bins as they pack orders for pickup or delivery.  The robots operate on three axes of motion, allowing a more flexible system than is typically found in distribution centres.  The flexible range of motion means there are fewer space constraints to consider, which should facilitate adoption of the system across stores.

Woalmart associates can retrieve customers’ items from one of several stations attached to the Alphabot shelving system. At these stations, associates input a grocery order number and the system dispenses bins belonging to that order.  The associate checks, bags and delivers the final order.   

The Alphabots are able to retrieve ambient, refrigerated and frozen items.  While associates will continue to pick produce and other fresh items by hand, Alphabot will make the retrieval process for all other items easier and faster.  It is estimated that Alphabot can pick and pack orders as much as ten times faster than a human. This can help Walmart to expand its capacity for order fulfilment, as online grocery grows.

Last year, IGD had the opportunity to see a version of the system in action at a store in Bentonville, where it is being used for storage and retrieval of orders, but not picking.

Brian Roth, a senior manager of pickup automation and digital operations for Walmart U.S., said:

“This is going to be a transformative impact to Walmart’s supply chain,”

“Alphabot is what we think of as micro-fulfillment – an inventive merger of e-commerce and brick and mortar methods.”

“By assembling and delivering orders to associates, Alphabot is streamlining the order process, allowing associates to do their jobs with greater speed and efficiency,”.

Source: IGD Research

 

Where has it been introduced?

The Alphabot system has been introduced in Salem, New Hampshire.  At the moment, 30 Alphabots operate in a 20,000 square-foot facility attached to a Walmart store, picking a selection of 4,500 items.  However, the system is currently operating at only a fraction of its maximum capacity.  The site has been built to hold 20,000 SKUs and 20 additional robots will be added in the future, according to John Lert, CEO of Alert Innovation.  The site will serve as a dedicated grocery pickup point, with drive-thru lanes for customers. 

This pilot has been operating in Salem since mid-2019.  The store will continue to be the main site for Alphabot deployment, where the system will be studied, refined and improved.  After associate and customer feedback has been collected, the next steps for a broader Alphabot rollout will be assessed. 

There are further plans to build similar facilities onto stores in Mustang, Oklahoma and Burbank, California this year.

Source: Walmart

 

How will it benefit Walmart?

Roth has said the below about how the system will benefit Walmart.

“By assembling and delivering orders to associates, Alphabot is streamlining the order process, allowing associates to do their jobs with greater speed and efficiency,”

“Ultimately, this will lower dispense times, increase accuracy and improve the entirety of online grocery. And it will help free associates to focus on service and selling, while the technology handles the more mundane, repeatable tasks.”

How will it benefit customers?

The system will improve customers’ pickup experience, as orders can be placed closer to the time of collection and waiting time when picking up an order is reduced.

An element of machine learning is incorporated into the system, whereby order information is shared to enable the system to learn, making stocking more intelligent and making substitutions easier to anticipate and fill.  “We never want to be in a position to tell an online grocery customer they can’t have an item,” Roth said. “We’ll be able to look at datasets and fairly say ‘these two brands of pasta are typically bought together,’ or ‘here’s an item a consumer buys often,’ and use that information to make more informed substitutions.”

Check our Transformed by technology and Walmart hub for related content.