2020 was marked by massive disruptions and unprecedented turmoil. It’s also a year of accelerated innovation as businesses pushed automation to keep facilities open and to keep people safe.
A lot of what companies learned during COVID-19 will drive the expansion of automation in 2021 and going forward. These predictions are based on the extraordinary progress automation made during 2020 as the pandemic changed how companies conducted business. The c-suite quickly learned that if they wanted to stay in business, automation was the key. We will likely look back on 2020 as a watershed moment when automation was vigorously embraced, adopted, and expanded.
Here are 10 predictions that look at advances in multi-purpose robots for 2021. The insights come from Tim Rowland, CEO of Badger Technologies, a company involved in retail automation. Rowland sees automation progressing rapidly with multi-purpose robot fleets in retail space and warehouses.
- Expect Robots Will Pinpoint Exact Product Locations
Autonomous robots took on more expansive roles in stores and warehouses during the pandemic, which is expected to gain momentum in 2021. Data-collecting robots shared real-time inventory updates and accurate product location data with mobile shopping apps, online order pickers, and curbside pickup services along with in-store shoppers and employees. In large retail environments with hundreds of thousands of items, the ability to pinpoint products is a major productivity booster and timesaver.
- Multipurpose Robots Measure Up as Mavens of Multitasking
Autonomous robots can easily handle different duties, often referred to as payloads, which are programmed to address varying requirements, including but not limited to, inventory management, hazard detection, security checks, surface disinfectants, and more. In the future, retailers will have increased options for mixing and matching automated workflows to meet specific operational needs.
- COVID-19 Proved There’s a Limited Supply in the World
Major restock runs and a surge in online shopping quickly depleted shelf inventory, especially during the run on paper products early in the pandemic. Ensuring adequate supplies of “highflyers” requires the integration of shelf-level data with backroom, warehouse, and supply chain information. To avoid visible holes on shelves, retailers will increase the use of robotics to correlate inventory data with POS, warehouse management, and order management systems.
- Independent, Regional Grocers Adopt Robots with Increased Agility and Speed
Most grocers test any technology they bring into their stores before widespread deployments. In 2020, independents like Woodman’s Markets, increased their deployments of in-store robots while larger entities like Walmart scaled back. Not only do independent, regional grocers have greater freedom and agility to trial new technologies, they’re also keen to automate wherever possible.
- Issues with Labor Shortages Will Continue
As the labor market continues to tighten, retailers increasingly will look for ways to automate previously manual, mundane tasks. Multipurpose robots shine when it comes to oft-dreaded shelf scans, performing scans in hours instead of days and with up to 95% accuracy. Let’s face it, no employee wants to perform mind-numbing, tedious tasks, so let the robots do it—they’ll never get bored or distracted.
- Data-Driven Insights Necessitate Seamless Integration
The more comfortable retailers become with autonomous robots roaming store aisles safely alongside shoppers and employees, the faster they can redirect attention to what matters most—the ability to elevate customer satisfaction while increasing store revenue and profitability. To accomplish this, however, retailers need to connect the dots between shelf-scanning results and corresponding department, category, vendor, sell-through, and pricing data.
- Planogram Compliance Goes Beyond Outside Surveys and Visualizations
Another area where increased data collection and evaluation is warranted is the analysis and audits of end caps. Instead of relying on handshake agreements as well as the use of outside surveys and basic visualizations, data-collecting robots can share real-time updates by the retail store, category, and CPG management. Having critical trending data improves forecasting, replenishment prioritization, and management of vendors with frequent stock issues.
- Sensors, Drones, and Fixed Cameras Become the Ideal Robot Accessory
In 2021, autonomous robots will likely be teamed with other in-store technologies such as fixed cameras, drones, and all types of sensors, to enhance data-collection capabilities. It’s all about attaining real-time visibility, especially in those hard-to-reach, hard-to-see places. A bevy of sensors will enhance a robot’s sensing abilities, including detection of certain gases emitted when foods lose freshness or are stored improperly.
- 5G Will have a Profound Impact
Investments—of substantial size—in the latest wireless technology are going to pay off in many aspects of retail as it promises to unleash new experiences. Mega-trending 5G is poised to deliver unheralded speed and bandwidth to ensure shared visibility of retail data without impacting other in-store network operations. Expect 5G to go from pilot to production phase throughout the retail industry.
- The M&A Scene Will Remain Active
An increased frequency of mergers and acquisitions in the grocery sector will remain in the forecast. This is exemplified by the recent news of Ahold Delhaize acquiring FreshDirect along with HelloFresh’s acquisition of rival Factor75. Meanwhile, Food Lion secured FTC clearance to acquire 62 Bi-Lo/Harveys supermarket stores. As M&A activity continues, so does the need to integrate disparate data from different legacy systems to ensure end-to-end operational visibility.
Rob Spiegel has covered manufacturing for 19 years, 17 of them for Design News. Other topics he has covered include automation, supply chain technology, alternative energy, and cybersecurity. For 10 years, he was the owner and publisher of the food magazine Chile Pepper.