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Amazon Robots Poised To Revamp How Whole Foods Runs Warehouses (bloomberg.com) 97

After Amazon announced it would buy Whole Foods Market for $13.7 billion earlier this month, John Mackey, Whole Foods' chief executive officer, rejoiced and reportedly gushed about Amazon's technological innovation. "We will be joining a company that's visionary," Mackey said. "I think we're gonna get a lot of those innovations in our stores. I think we're gonna see a lot of technology. I think you're gonna see Whole Foods Market evolve in leaps and bounds." Specifically, Mackey is talking about the thousands of delivery robots Amazon uses in its facilities. Bloomberg reports: In negotiations, Amazon spent a lot of time analyzing Whole Foods' distribution technology, pointing to a possible way in which the company sees the most immediate opportunities to reduce costs, said a person familiar with the matter who asked not to be identified because the issue was private. Experts say the most immediate changes would likely be in warehouses that customers never see. That suggests the jobs that could be affected the earliest would be in the warehouses, where products from suppliers await transport to store shelves, said Gary Hawkins, CEO of the Center for Advancing Retail and Technology, a Los Angeles nonprofit that helps retailers and brands innovate. As Amazon looks to automate distribution, cashiers will be safe -- for now. Amazon sees automation as a key strategic advantage in its overall grocery strategy, according to company documents reviewed by Bloomberg before the Whole Foods acquisition was announced. Whole Foods has 11 distribution centers specializing in perishable foods that serve its stores. It also has seafood processing plants, kitchens and bakeries that supply prepared food to each location. Those are the places where Amazon could initially focus, according to experts. While the company said it has no current plans to automate the jobs of cashiers in Whole Foods stores after it finishes acquiring the grocery chain, it's likely only a matter of time before cashier positions become automated. According to Bloomberg's report, Amazon may bring the robots to the stores after automating Whole Foods' warehouses. "The first ones will likely navigate aisles to check inventory and alert employees when items run low, said Austin Bohlig, an advisor at Loup Ventures, which invests in robotics startups," reports Bloomberg.
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Amazon Robots Poised To Revamp How Whole Foods Runs Warehouses

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  • by Anonymous Coward

    Clean coal will save America. Plus we are bringing our jobs back from Asia.

    MAGA

  • by Anonymous Coward

    "The first ones will likely navigate aisles to check inventory and alert employees when items run low"

    Really? Haven't stores been using point of sale where they keep track of inventory based upon sales, for like decades. Only doing physical inventories periodically to check for loss. Whole foods can't be that far behind.

    Also the Whole Foods in our area used to have self checkout but took that system out (like other grocery stores), so maybe cashiers aren't that inefficient? Just wondering.

    • You still might want a robot going around and scanning shelves just to locate items that are out of place. People spot something that they'd prefer to have and swap it with another item in the cart instead of taking the first back to where it actually belongs, or a parent removes something that little Johnny decided to sneak into the cart and has no idea where it belongs. There's also inventory shrinkage through theft that isn't going to be accounted for at the register as you point out, but that's not goin
    • Retail needs to track shrinkage, aka theft by staff or customers. Other benefits such as more real-time tracking of stock levels are possible, but I would think they would do all that via RFID...
  • by Anonymous Coward

    Danger, Will Robinson! We're low on stock on fresh carrots!

  • Efficiency is the difference between 2016 and 1600 BCE. Also the difference between wealthy European states and shitholes like North Korea where people live in universal poverty.

    We do get a few minor bruises getting there. There's a reason we need universal Social Security--which the United States in particular can implement trivially. Each step of progress reduces costs in the only real way costs come down: reducing wage-labor hours paid. That means people get stuck in transitional unemployment, an

    • by swb ( 14022 )

      We will see a day soon when we can enjoy an even-greater standard-of-living with as little as 32 or even 28 working-hours per week declared as full-time employment in an amended Fair Labor Standards Act, a trade-off of an even greater capacity to purchase goods and services for instead the simple time to enjoy our ever-amassing wealth.

      Why does it seem instead of this happening (as predicted by Keynes a century ago), what we really get are fewer people, holding more wealth and clamoring for even more wealth?

      Given a choice of limiting luxury consumption and giving money to others, it seems like people generally always choose to further their own luxury consumption, at least first even if they choose some kind of charity after.

      I can think of two real world examples involving even highly altruistic people.

      My wife was on the board of a charit

      • Why does it seem instead of this happening (as predicted by Keynes a century ago), what we really get are fewer people, holding more wealth and clamoring for even more wealth?

        Because you have mangled second-hand information.

        Look back at 1998. 128k ISDN, $35/month. Today, I spend $87/month and get 200MBit. I can get $56,000/month worth of Internet for $87.

        Those home telephone lines for $30/month became cell phone lines when those $4,000 cell phones got down to like $500. Now I pay $160 for a year of unlimited voice and mms, plus 2GB/month of high-speed data and unlimited throttled data; I have a $350 smartphone, essentially a quad-core computer with a couple gigs of RAM in

  • Robotmania! (Score:5, Insightful)

    by nsuccorso ( 41169 ) on Tuesday June 27, 2017 @08:30AM (#54697911)

    According to Bloomberg's report, Amazon may bring the robots to the stores after automating Whole Foods' warehouses. "The first ones will likely navigate aisles to check inventory and alert employees when items run low,

    This makes no sense at all. Seriously? Robots large enough to see the top shelves just wandering up and down aisles, getting in the way of and creeping out customers, just so they can inform employees that items are running low? What the hell happened to things like RFID technology keeping track of store inventory in real time, which would accomplish the same thing without getting in the way? Or just build the smarts into the shelving if you really think this is so damned important! Who on earth thinks this is a good idea?

    said Austin Bohlig, an advisor at Loup Ventures, which invests in robotics startups,"

    Ah, of course.

    • Just tracking the inventory isn't enough. Some products are low when there are 20 still left on the shelf and others aren't low until only 2. Making all the shelving smart might be slicker but how and at what cost compared to a single robot that can check all the shelves?

      • Just tracking the inventory isn't enough. Some products are low when there are 20 still left on the shelf and others aren't low until only 2.

        And you believe this is a problem for a centralized inventory tracker, but not for a robot? The inputs to the basic problem are the same (type of item, number of items on the shelf) regardless of the mechanism used to measure them. The problem of when to restock will be handled by rules, which are no easier for the robot to understand than for the central inventory

        • I don't know how it compares. Do you? It seems to me that

          You've got ideas that sound great on paper (screen?) but all I really know is that apparently neither of us specialize in grocery store inventory and the people in the article do and they want this robot. So there's probably something to it that people on this forum are either missing or overthinking.

          • The only person quoted as thinking this is a good idea is some rando who funds robotics startups. I'm afraid you are missing the obvious motivation.
      • Why can't they just use their POS system, surely they can keep track of how much stock is still on the shelves by determining how many have walked out the door. Why have robots do that at all? Seems a waste of effort to me. If their POS cannot differentiate from stock on shelves and stock in the back room then they need to get a better POS system. Once an item gets low on the shelves the shelf packer / stacker (or whatever they are called) is alerted and goes to the back room, checks out a new box of X
        • Items on shelves =/= items stocked - items sold. There's breakage, pilferage, accidental checkout of 2 items stuck together and other things beside. Only an actual physical reconciliation can ensure that reality matches what the computers "know".

          • There's breakage, pilferage, accidental checkout of 2 items stuck together

            I believe in the retail industry they call pilferage or stealing "shrinkage" fuck knows why, but that's entirely besides the point.

            It may not be 100% accurate, but then it does not have to be, or is the robot going to take every can / item off a shelf and count each one? You don't restock a shelf when it's empty, you restock a shelf when it's nearly empty - which should make up for any slight counting issues at the POS (or shrinkag

            • It's "Inventory Shrinkage", technically, I think. But I wanted to make the point that there are many reasons why the numbers often don't match and even then they aren't complete. For example, when the foreman says "We've a spill in Aisle 5, grab a roll of paper towels from 7 and clean it up", that, too is part of shrinkage.

              There are very compelling reasons to completely inventory a shelf periodically. Virtually everything has some sort of "sell-by" date. You want to pull the old stock to the front as part o

    • by ranton ( 36917 )

      Or just build the smarts into the shelving if you really think this is so damned important! Who on earth thinks this is a good idea?

      This seems to be the way to go for me. Amazon could probably get a thousand wifi cameras in each store for the cost of a single mobile robot. Just place them in the shelves and have them look at the other side of the aisle. Handles inventory, misplaced items, and theft prevention. Sounds a lot easier than putting RFID chips in everything. You could also still have conveyor belts where all items need to be placed for an overhead camera to identify items. If RFID chips in each item aren't economical, there ar

    • What the hell happened to things like RFID technology keeping track of store inventory in real time, which would accomplish the same thing without getting in the way?

      The kind of people who shop at whole foods don't want RFID tags attached to their food.

      Or just build the smarts into the shelving if you really think this is so damned important!

      It really ought to be good enough to do a weekly or daily inventory of each shelf and stock item (depending on how fast a particular product moves) and handle the quantity available via the checkout system otherwise. Also, making the shelving more expensive and fiddly is not a good idea. They already move shelves up and down occasionally.

      • by chill ( 34294 )

        The kind of people who shop at whole foods don't want RFID tags attached to their food.

        Considering RFID tags can easily be PLU stickers, like the type placed on damn near every piece of fresh produce, they may already be there whether people know it or not.

        https://www.pma.com/content/articles/2014/05/labeling [pma.com]

        • Most produce PLU stickers are just a little bit of plastic film and the barest amount of contact adhesive, if they had a tag in them you'd know. You'd be able to feel it, the stickers are that thin.

          It's not that it's impossible, it's just not happening, and the probable consumer reaction is one of the reasons. It's also expensive to do well, which IMO is a bigger reason.

    • This makes no sense at all. Seriously? Robots large enough to see the top shelves just wandering up and down aisles, getting in the way of and creeping out customers, just so they can inform employees that items are running low? What the hell happened to things like RFID technology keeping track of store inventory in real time, which would accomplish the same thing without getting in the way? Or just build the smarts into the shelving if you really think this is so damned important! Who on earth thinks this is a good idea?

      I agree. I see something more like a tape farm where the robots are in the backs of the shelves on rails. It scans the shelves for inventory and then loads more product in from the back as needed and the customer never sees it happen.

  • work in a rual area and gop healthcare plan will really suck for the people left even more so the for the Amazon part timers still working at the whole foods that will lose Medicaid

  • by Albanach ( 527650 ) on Tuesday June 27, 2017 @08:33AM (#54697931) Homepage

    That seems ridiculous. It would be diametrically the opposite of the Whole Foods brand.

    Mini bars in hotels have been able to check stock levels for many years. RFID tags, sensors in shelves and, perhaps cameras could all check stock status easily without intrusive robots wandering the aisles.

    It's not like modern grocery stores don't already have stock information simply by deducting sales and wastage from the existing stock level, so even the above adds little value to the existing marketplace. Warehouse efficiency is one thing, but Amazon isn't going to transform the retail side by knowing someone took a bottle of olive oil from the shelf five minutes before a competitor would learn the same thing at the checkout.

    • That seems ridiculous. It would be diametrically the opposite of the Whole Foods brand.

      True. But the brand is softening due to mainstreamng of ts niche. There's a perfectly reasonable alternative scenario in which AMZN purchased infrastructure (warehouses, distribution, shops) and supply chain (a lot of the "organic" stuff is just product lines of the same multinationals like Nestle, Kellogs, Coca-Cola etc) and didn't have a high value for the brand.

      Still makes the ideas of mixing stock-taking robots with customers absurd, I'm just talking about the idea that amzon wanted the brand position

  • Why does Bloomberg think that Whole Foods needs robots to roam the isles taking inventory? The UPC code and other methods are used when anyone checks out at the cashier with their purchases. These purchases are subtracted from store inventory, so we know the instant, literally, when inventory is depleted. The inventory management system can automatically and accurately propose the daily/weekly/monthly reorder list. Inventory systems know the vendors, the lead times to order to compensate for shipping ti

    • Why does Bloomberg think that Whole Foods needs robots to roam the isles taking inventory?

      Because the person writing the article is an unimaginative putz who wrote the first idiotic thing that came into his/her head.

      • "The first ones will likely navigate aisles to check inventory and alert employees when items run low, said Austin Bohlig, an advisor at Loup Ventures, which invests in robotics startups,"

    • Who says the robots need to roam the aisles where people walk? An RFID scanner on a track that runs up and down the center of the shelf could see what (RFID-tagged) items are on the shelves on either side of it. The shelves themselves could be smart enough to know when an item is placed on them or removed from them without need of RFID (though possibly with frikkin' laser beams or other light emitting/sensing tech). Or the robots could be embedded in the carts, that, you know, roam the aisles all day.

      That s

      • Who says they have to operate from ground level? Put them on rails and suspend them. Telescope the scanning apparatus and retract it when a person is nearby. Bonus points for incorporating the rail system for restocking.

        I like your idea though. It's a clever use of horizontal space.

  • The warehouse worker is iin serious trouble stemming from robots which never: -
    -take overtime,
    -call in sick,
    -have attitude,
    -need a day off to attend kids' practise,
    -complain,
    -slack off at work,
    -engage in affairs with co-workers...and so on...

    The biggest advantage is the ability to transfer their "mind" and therefore skills to other robots at ease.

    Folks, we're doomed. This is just a start.

    • No, just repetitive and tedious/dangerous manual labor jobs are doomed. After all, isn't that why robots were created? They certainly weren't created to be a plastic pal who is fun to be with...
      • That's pretty much most jobs. Especially most low-skilled jobs. Very few will be able to train for a high skilled job.
        • It depends. A high skilled job that involves setting behind a desk and manipulating information may be easier to automate than a low skilled job that involves a lot of physical dexterity. In the first case, the interface to a machine is much easier to make, and the potential profit is much higher.

    • by ranton ( 36917 )

      Folks, we're doomed. This is just a start.

      It is quite depressing when people foresee a world where very few people need to work and they reaction is "we're doomed."

      I look forward to a day where people find self worth in being a a great amateur baseball player, skier, bridge player, gardener, etc. instead of getting it from their job. Perhaps a world where the average person works 5-10 years out of their life and then spends the rest in leisure. A select few work much more but live in extreme luxury. Doesn't sound all that bad.

    • To add to what your saying. -They do work of humans. So their work needs to be taxed. (No fudging out of this one!!) -Can they be hacked? Causing Chaos in the workplace??
  • In meatspace it's not difficult to just go somewhere else. I wish Amazon luck with this one...
  • If you don't want future 16 to 20 year olds to lose jobs in the warehouse and supermarket sectors,
    it's simple. Don't buy from these stores. If you must shop in a store, only use the manned cashiers, never use the self-service.

  • While I have no doubt that Amazon will improve things for the part of Whole Foods that involves selling things that don't need refrigeration and can be wrapped in plastic with a bar code attached, I hope Amazon will take time to learn the techniques Whole Foods uses to keep their customers happy regarding the products that need refrigeration or need to be scooped onto a scale by the customer. Keeping the quality high for those products is not the same as the job Amazon does well now.

    I notice that most Who
  • I know it's not a popular opinion on a tech site, and a lot of people might call me a Luddite, but why can't we leave some slack in the system? Why does everything have to be as efficient as we can possibly make it? Why does every business feel they need to run with zero wiggle room in terms of staffing?

    There's nothing wrong with increasing efficiency...until you've gone so far that there's no labor left for the average person to sell that employers are willing to buy. Grocery stores are a really good examp

    • Ultimately, it is not Amazon's job to worry about ensuring employment for all of those people displaced by robots. That is a larger societal issue, that needs to be addressed by governments. Lots of intelligent non-techies have thought about how this might work:

      1. Universal Basic Income. Several places are experimenting with this now. Basically, if you can't get a job, you get enough to live on, but not so much as to make working unattractive to those who can get a job.

      2. Changes to working hours. For tho
  • This is a great opportunity for sniffer bots to be employed in warehouses. These enhanced versions of existing bots would detect ripeness or overripeness of fruits & vegetables as they cruise the aisles. They may be able to identify specific dangerous conditions in various fresh products.

    This would save Amazon money, but more importantly the technology they adopt and improve could save lives worldwide starting with food banks here in the US and worldwide. I'm imagining a $10 device that attaches to a co

  • by CaptainDork ( 3678879 ) on Tuesday June 27, 2017 @12:06PM (#54699273)

    ... but there's not one goddam piece of wisdom here, including from me.

  • There are many specialized tasks at a grocery store that can be made less specialized by changing supplier form factors. Amazon has shown no hesitation in the past in pushing such requirements down on their suppliers. For instance, I once spent 10 hours unloading a 40 foot flatbed full of watermelons by putting the watermelons in pallet-bottomed-corals that could be shelved in the giant refrigerator. Amazon might insist that watermelon suppliers provide their watermelons in a more efficiently handled wa

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