A trio of automation tech firms will provide autonomous delivery tugs for trials in tackling material handling jobs in the "last 500 feet,” moving inventory from stockrooms to store shelves in commercial retail sites, the partners said Wednesday.
Material handling equipment vendor UniCarriers Americas Corp. (UCA) has teamed with the artificial intelligence (AI) firm Brain Corp and the power assist solution provider Dane Technologies to create the tugs, which operate much like the autonomous mobile robots (AMRs) that have become an increasingly common sight in distribution centers in recent years.
Moving that technology from the warehouse to the retail store represents the latest overlap in strategies between two logistics nodes that have traditionally kept an arms-length separation in material handling tools. Recent advances in omnichannel commerce and inventory visibility have led to a rise in the sharing of platforms that can be used at both sites, such as radio frequency identification (RFID) scanning guns, voice-directed slotting and picking headsets, and handheld tablet computers.
The autonomous delivery tugs would not be the first robots that shoppers have seen rolling through retail aisles. Many stores have already begun deploying mobile bots to perform inventory counts by scanning shelves with barcode scanners and computer vision cameras as they cruise the aisles, using platforms from Simbe Robotics, Badger Technologies, and Bossa Nova.
However, the robotic delivery tugs mark the first time such platforms have been deployed to “bridge the automation gap” in moving inventory within retail facilities, San Diego-based Brain Corp said. In a video demonstration, the tugs bear a close resemblance to warehouse AGVs, but can be seen pulling wheeled carts up to 1,000 pounds in weight to assigned grocery store shelves instead of warehouse racks.
Brain Corp says its AI technology enables safe navigation in high-traffic commercial locations. In April, the company raised $36 million in venture capital to expand the applications of its robotic floor scrubbers from industrial facilities into markets like automated inventory delivery and shelf analytics in retail, healthcare, airports, and education.
"The supply chain ends at the customer, not the back warehouse. These new autonomous delivery robots help automate the movement of goods for that 'last 500 feet'—the distance between the stockroom and store shelves,” John Black, Brain Corp’s senior vice president of new product development, said in a release. “This has huge ramifications for increasing employee productivity, improving customer satisfaction, and reducing potential exposure to workers' comp claims. We are excited to bring this new innovation to market with our manufacturing partners."
In grocery applications, the tugs could help retailers keep shelves stocked, hauling trash and recyclables, and supporting online order fulfillment, he said. Automating those tasks could save money related to labor, reduced risk, and staff turnover, all while allowing workers to follow social distancing policies by staying in specific zones.
Brain Corp announces initial pilots & commercial deployment of autonomous #deliverytugs to help retailers automate the movement of inventory & goods from stockroom to shelves. Implementation can save $100k annually in labor/risk. Full press release here: https://t.co/zB2O7I7qhu pic.twitter.com/e20vFXM8Wj— Brain Corp (@braincorp) August 5, 2020