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Glynn Davis: Robotics plays an increasingly important role in the retail sector

Glynn Davis is one of the UK’s most knowledgeable and experienced retail journalists, founder of Retail Insider, and Ecommerce Age’s monthly columnist.

We only need to go back to early 2020 to find that a major worry in the retail industry was the forecasted loss of jobs due to robotics and automation, with the BRC (British Retail Consortium) predicting 370,000 roles would become extinct by 2025 as a result of the advance of technology automating a plethora of roles.

Today Covid-19 has shifted people’s aspirations as well as their work/life balances and when you combine this with Brexit and the removal of much of the UK’s workforce from the EU then the biggest worry in the retail sector has switched to a lack of people to fill record levels of vacancies. It might actually be robots that come to the rescue.

Although it is the case that myriad tasks performed by humans cannot be easily automated there is a recognition that the rapid technological advances – notably around artificial intelligence and machine learning – is making automation possible in a growing number of areas.

This is certainly apparent in the grocery sector. In recent weeks we have seen Tesco launch its first ‘GetGo’ store with Israeli tech firm Trigo. The proposition mirrors the ‘Just Walk Out’ stores of Amazon in using a barrage of technology to render checkouts, and their human assistants, surplus to requirements. The online giant has been rolling out these stores around the London area.

According to RBR there are now some 32,500 stores around the world allowing customers to avoid the end-of-shop scanning and payment process involving checkouts. It has found over 60 hardware and software suppliers globally are creating an increasingly advanced array of solutions for retailers.

Among the more progressive players is Ocado that has focused its attention on back-end robotics and automation supplying its IP to the world’s largest grocery companies for use in large distribution centres. But it has also been building out its footprint with a new solution it says is built for “very small warehouses”. This takes it into the realms of micro-fulfilment where small units are placed near the end-customer and automation is used to boost their efficiency.

Ocado is also expanding its automation capability into the front-end of the retail and hospitality industries through its partnership with robotics firm Karakuri who’s CEO Barney Wragg says food is absolutely at the cutting edge of automation because its properties change over time once it has been cooked. This compares dramatically with other industries such as the automotive sector that has long employed robots to build cars with great efficiency.

The automation successes in food have largely involved portioning out ingredients but Karakuri has developed a more advanced solution that has been deployed in the employee canteen of Ocado to prepare and serve fresh cooked bowls of food at scale – with 110 dishes per hour delivered from a possible 2,700 combinations. Wragg says the Semblr robotic device not only uses an arm and vision but also multiple sensors as he says many data points are required encompassing maths, particle physics and accelerometers.

There is no doubt that Semblr is very much an attractive visual feature at Ocado’s HQ and Wragg says the company had previously talked mostly to challenger food brands who liked the idea of the theatricality of the robot. But things changed after Covid-19 and Brexit. Labour shortages hit and home delivery went through the roof along with the growth of dark kitchens in order to satisfy demand. The large franchise groups then came knocking on Karakuri’s door having recognised there is a serious problem and the solution is to be found in advanced automation and robotics.

“Automation has been seen as taking people’s jobs but people don’t want those jobs. There is a shift [taking place] around where we go as humans? It follows the fact there is no metal bashing for cars [undertaken] by humans anymore. We’ve moved on,” suggests Wragg.

We certainly have moved on from where we were in only 2020. Robotics looks set to play an increasingly important role in the retail sector and not in the negative way that was previously foreseen but in a much more positive way that helps overcome some of the deficiencies that have only just become apparent in the labour/retail eco-system. Robots are looking more likely to be cooking and delivering, rather than eating, people’s lunches.