March 10, 2020

How Autonomous Mobile Robots Help Retail Workers be More Effective

Gavin Donley
Gavin Donley

Walk down the aisle of your local Walmart late at night and you may come across a large machine that looks like a small Zamboni. But instead of smoothing ice, the machine is cleaning the store’s floors, and instead of someone in the driver’s seat, the machine is safely moving itself up and down the aisles and around obstacles. Most shoppers completely ignore it, and employees move deftly around it, focused on other tasks.

This is the future, and it’s happening today. The value proposition, at its most simple, is that autonomous mobile robots (AMRs) ensure important work gets done efficiently while freeing up human time and labor costs, improving productivity, and upskilling workers to allow them to focus on customers. The increase in worker productivity is an impactful enhancement for both parties: employees engage in value-adding work, and customers are met with an increased level of support and accommodation. AMRs are growing quickly in popularity among retailers for this reason, and are currently being used for floor care, inventory delivery, shelf scanning, and more.

Here are five ways that AMRs help retail workers do their job better.

1. AMRs allow workers to spend their time more productively

By taking care of an undesirable and dull task, automated floor cleaning robots can lift some of the burden of manual labor off of human workers and allow them to use their time in other ways. Rather than driving a slow-moving piece of equipment around store floors for hours, workers can focus on higher value tasks, such as precision cleaning or working directly with customers and improving their retail experiences.

Studies have shown that robot adoption is positively correlated with increases in labor productivity, across occupations and countries. Major retailers are seeing gains in productivity, as well as in employees’ job satisfaction.

2. AMRs allow workers to learn a new skill

Because BrainOS-enabled AMRs learn through demonstration and repetition, workers apply their domain knowledge and experience to teach the AMRs which areas to clean and which routes to take. Workers simply have to drive the automated scrubbers along the right routes, and the robots will learn and repeat. Then cleaning staff and retail employees can go about other tasks while the AMRs safely and autonomously perform the cleaning routes they were taught. This domain expertise can be applied to other BrainOS-powered robots, and other robots in general as AMR adoption accelerates.

Furthermore, by working with BrainOS-enabled AMRs, cleaning staff and retail workers also learn new skills and gain new responsibilities as “robot operators.” This means that, without any coding or technical experience, retail workers can easily operate these autonomous machines right from the beginning. By becoming the robot domain expert for their company, these workers better position themselves to grow within the company and take control of more responsibilities outside of their original domain.

3. AMRs keep employees healthy

Tasks such as shelf-stocking require workers to haul around heavy carts, moving back and forth to and from the inventory room. This is a laborious, physical task that can be dangerous and result in injuries. By automating these strenuous tasks, workers are freed up from the physical labor, leading to prolonged health and job satisfaction. AMRs can take on the “dirty, dull, and dangerous” tasks (three D’s of robotics), allowing workers to focus on more fulfilling customer-centric tasks.

4. AMRs help employees be more efficient and consistent

All BrainOS-enabled AMRs are managed in the cloud through a central, user-friendly platform, so cleaning businesses can monitor and document the status and quality of tasks. Using the data and reporting collected by the autonomous machines, workers and their managers can make strategic decisions to optimize the efficiency and flow of their team’s operations. Custodial jobs will get done faster without overworking employees whose skills are better utilized in dexterous, tactical tasks.

Additionally, AMRs are very methodical, meaning they do the exact same thing every time. Once workers train the machines, driving them along the right routes within the store, they simply “learn and repeat” the task and can then navigate the space autonomously. By delivering guaranteed consistency that can be validated through data and reporting that hasn’t been available before, AMRs also enable workers to be more consistent and improve their workflow.

5. AMRs can augment the work of retail employees

According to a February 2020 Bureau of Labor Statistics report, employment in the retail sector has declined by a cumulative 29K over the past year. On a month-to-month basis, the employment rate is volatile, at times declining by 47K (September 2019) and at others growing by 45K (December 2019). This might be explained by the industry’s high turnover—in 2019, there were approximately the same amount of hires as separations. Experts do not expect these rates to change soon, and many are worried that the retail industry will become chronically understaffed.

Luckily, we exist at a time in which robotics can help augment the work of retail employees. Floor cleaning is one area where robots currently provide the most value. Most retailers use large machines to scrub store floors. By transitioning to autonomous mobile robots (AMRs) powered by BrainOS software, retailers can reduce the impact of missing workers. In the face of a labor shortage and consistently high demand for that labor, robots are a welcome solution.

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