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Robotics Software Hardware Technology

Walmart Tests Shelf-Scanning Robots In Over 50 Stores (engadget.com) 76

Walmart is expanding a shelf-scanning robot trial to 50 additional stores, including some in its home state of Arkansas. "Machines from Bossa Nova Robotics will roam the aisles to check for stock levels, pricing and misplaced items, saving human staffers the hassle of checking everything themselves," reports Engadget. The robots will be fully autonomous, though technicians will be available in case things go awry. They employ 3D imaging to dodge obstacles and make notes to return later if their path is completely blocked. From the report: Walmart stresses that the robots are there to supplement humans, not replace them -- to eliminate drudgery and the expenses that go with it. This helps workers get to the task of filling empty shelves, and that's a job that the company doesn't see ending any time soon given the difficulty robots still have when grabbing objects. "Store associates will always be better at that," Walmart's Martin Hitch told the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. And the chief of Bossa Nova rival Simbe Robotics, Brad Bogolea, added that shelf checks can cost a major retailer hundreds of millions of dollars per year. However expensive the robots may be, they could pay for themselves very quickly. Whether or not the robots see wider use will, unsurprisingly, hinge on the success of this wider trial. Walmart posted a video about the shelf-scanning robots on its YouTube page.
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Walmart Tests Shelf-Scanning Robots In Over 50 Stores

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  • by sexconker ( 1179573 ) on Thursday October 26, 2017 @06:25PM (#55440967)

    Soul Bossa Nova? https://www.youtube.com/watch?... [youtube.com]
    Domo Arigato, Mr. Roboto? https://www.youtube.com/watch?... [youtube.com]

  • by DogDude ( 805747 ) on Thursday October 26, 2017 @06:32PM (#55441011)
    This is not the right way to fix this problem. The right way is to have humans do this job. They're cheaper and more effective. Retail stores that don't have human employees actively working in them turn to shit very very quickly. See: most department stores in the US today.

    You need humans to not only check stock levels, but to see and fix any other problems that may be around (anything on the floor, broken something, etc.).

    If you're using them for ordering, you shouldn't. You should fix whatever's wrong with your POS system that can't track inventory levels.

    This won't work.
    • Seems like a good idea to me. The robot can note where there is a dirty spot on the floor, take pictures of objects like mcdonalds cups left on the shelfs, spots where items to be rearanged to dispach humans to fix the problems.
    • by Dutch Gun ( 899105 ) on Thursday October 26, 2017 @07:27PM (#55441235)

      The entire point of using robots is because they're cheaper than humans in the long run. Human employees are essentially a indefinite rental cost, there's supplementary costs and risks involved, they can quit at any time, and they can only work eight hours a day. Robots are a fixed cost of ownership + smaller maintenance costs, which will presumably cost far less in the long run. They can work 24/7/365, minus maintenance or repair time. In pure economic terms, it's rather nonsensical to hire a human to do a job that a reasonably-priced robot can do.

      If you think this isn't the trend of the future, you're in denial. But there's certainly a question of how our society adjusts to robots "supplementing" (in reality, replacing) a portion of a currently human workforce. Certain types of jobs are constantly being phased out due to technology or automation, and while disruptive in the short term, society has adjusted. But many people are worried about the *pace* of these new technologies being a disruptive force, or the notion of AI replacing more skilled workers.

      I'm more of the opinion that it won't be catastrophically disruptive to society largely because it will also help lower costs of goods and services. Plus I believe people are over-estimating how fast the transition will occur. Some people tend to neglect to factor in the massive inertia of existing infrastructure. We'll have to see how it goes - but there's really no putting technology back in the bottle.

      • by houghi ( 78078 )

        The thing is that instead of have 2 people working 40 hours each and replacing 1 person means 1 person still works 40 and get standard pay, while the other gets nothing and the owner of the robot take the other pay that was lost.
        Ideal would be to have both work 20 hours and keep their pay.
        (Yes, I know that I have put the cost of the robot at 0 in this example)

      • The entire point of using robots is because they're cheaper than humans in the long run.

        Have you ever worked retail before? I have, and cycle counts are really shitty, tedious work. I would have loved if that job was automated, and it wouldn't have reduced the number of people employed at the store because they still needed the same number of people manning the sales floor. If you were there doing cycle counts, then you were also available to help customers, but even if you weren't doing cycle counts, then you were still helping customers.

        Alternative to cycle counts was running pull lists...ag

    • Call me a luddite, but after trying them a number of times I'm now avoiding self-checkout lines. Two reasons: 1) poor experience. No greeting, no thank you, no human interaction, and patronizing repetitive instructions. 2) They're going to put people out of work. These are important jobs for many people and to have them eliminated or largely reduced would affect a lot of people negatively.
      • poor experience. No greeting, no thank you, no human interaction, and patronizing repetitive instructions.

        Funny, I could literally say the same thing for a Walmart cashier.

        They're going to put people out of work.

        Uh, yeah, I think that's the point. Go Youtube "Humans need not apply"

      • 2) They're going to put people out of work. These are important jobs for many people and to have them eliminated or largely reduced would affect a lot of people negatively.

        Good point. Assuming, of course, that you use a palanquin to get about town, of course. Or are palanquin-bearers more expendable than cashiers?

        Oh, and how do you feel about using cranes to lift heavy loads rather than a whole bunch of people heaving on the line? Another bad thing?

      • No greeting, no thank you, no human interaction

        That's exactly why I prefer shelf-checkout. I go to a store to exchange symbolic currency units for tangible goods, not to make friends with a high school drop out.

      • The only poor experiences I've had with self-checkout involve other humans using the system and not knowing what the fuck they're doing.

        These are the people that see every regular check out line has people in it and think "Oh hey, I don't have to wait to use the self-checkout!" then they proceed to spend more time at the self-checkout than if they had just waited in the shortest regular line.

        • PLEASE PLACE THE ITEM IN THE BAGGING...... REMOVE ITEM FROM BAGGING ARE........ PLEASE PLACE........ (human overseer clicks button to "go to next item". Please scan item. PLEASE PLACE THE..... REMOVE ITEM FROM THE BAGG......

          like overzealous DRM largely ruined streaming media for a long time, and forced folks to pirate for usability, so do most of the self checkout systems I've used make me want to wait in line to just not have to stink-eye the really bored overseer at the end of the line to hit the "accept"

    • The right way is to have humans do this job. They're cheaper and more effective.

      The 1970s called. They want their facts back.

      You need humans to not only check stock levels, but to see and fix any other problems that may be around (anything on the floor, broken something, etc.).

      We have autonomous cars driving on American highways right now, and you think we can't figure this out? (Granted, they are required to have an engineer present in case the system fails, but that requirement will be gone before long.) Floor obstructions were already addressed, as the article says the robot can drive around them or schedule another visit if an area is completely blocked.

      People need to fix issues, but a combination of robots and cameras can find mo

    • The right way to fix this problem is to eliminate retail stores entirely and replace them with distribution centers that ship goods directly to customers' homes.
  • or humans are supplemental? reminds me of "To Serve Man" https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/... [wikipedia.org]
  • by Anonymous Coward

    âoeOh we are not cutting our workforce down. We simply wonâ(TM)t hire new peopleâ.

  • Why are robots needed here? Wouldn't a simple series of interlinked "smart-shelves" that use the weight-differential to figure out the needed quantity of product in a particular aisle/shelf be good enough?. A ceiling mounted camera with pattern recognition engine can tell whether something is on the floor, detect if it is similar to product on the shelves and factor that into computation. Crunch the two feeds and you have an auto announcement bot yelling "Cleanup on aisle 2" and another bot updating a produ

    • Wouldn't a simple series of interlinked "smart-shelves" that use the weight-differential to figure out the needed quantity of product in a particular aisle/shelf be good enough?

      You don't grasp that once you've turned every shelf into a (moderately expensive) scale, you've considerably increased the cost as well as no longer being "simple"?

      • You don't seem to grasp that any tech involving AI/Pattern recognition is going to be error prone and even a .001% error is magnified at the scale at which warehouses and stores are maintained. Logic based on scales is deterministic and fairly simple to implement.

        As for cost, a weight sensor for each shelf cost less than $30 in retail:
        http://www.ebay.com/bhp/weight... [ebay.com]

        Let's take about 30 aisles, 20 racks per aisle, and 5 shelves per rack.. so about 3000 shelves or about $90K in sensors.
        You can get a sectiona

        • You don't seem to grasp that any tech involving AI/Pattern recognition is going to be error prone and even a .001% error is magnified at the scale at which warehouses and stores are maintained.

          And your scales, especially with the low grade sensors you've chosen, won't have any errors?

          It'd be around $130K (not taking into account the cost savings Walmart will get to get this in scale).

          But not the labor for installing the shelves and all the wiring needed to power them. Nor the labor for maintaining them (a

  • by Anonymous Coward

    Those stock people will all go on to lucrative careers in the field of robotics, so this will create jobs!

  • Easy fix. Everytime you go to Walmart (why do you go to Walmart?), stop in the mens department, pick up a 3 or 4x hanging shirt, then put it on the robot as you walk by. Blind robot can't see. Or... just walk between the robot and the shelves. At some point, Walmart management will figure it out and scrap the program.
  • "Walmart stresses that the robots are there to supplement humans, not replace them

    Oh, bullshit. Walmart does not do a damn thing that isn't geared to replacing as many of the enemy - AKA employees- as possible.

    • As big of a predator Walmart is to local economy, still amuses me they're complaining about Amazon and how "unfair" they are. The day I see robots flying around Walmart, is the day I exclusively buy from Amazon. Suck it Walmart,
      • As big of a predator Walmart is to local economy, still amuses me they're complaining about Amazon and how "unfair" they are. The day I see robots flying around Walmart, is the day I exclusively buy from Amazon. Suck it Walmart,

        Just imagine when corporatism finally achieves it's goal of no employees. They'll really make a lot of money then.

        • Just imagine when corporatism finally achieves it's goal of no employees. They'll really make a lot of money then.

          They'll be making it off other robots who shop in the store. Eventually the owners of the store will be robots. And so on, robots all the way down.

          Fast-forward several millennia, when aliens arrive on Planet Earth, and find it teeming with robots following the mindless, perfunctory patters of the society of humans who built them. The aliens will scratch their bulbous heads in confusion, turn around to go back to their ship, when one of them will say "hey, we could use a set of nut-drivers."

          • Just imagine when corporatism finally achieves it's goal of no employees. They'll really make a lot of money then.

            They'll be making it off other robots who shop in the store. Eventually the owners of the store will be robots. And so on, robots all the way down.

            Fast-forward several millennia, when aliens arrive on Planet Earth, and find it teeming with robots following the mindless, perfunctory patters of the society of humans who built them. The aliens will scratch their bulbous heads in confusion, turn around to go back to their ship, when one of them will say "hey, we could use a set of nut-drivers."

            I found nothing in that that I could refute, so I'm gonna go with that as well..8^)

    • by nasch ( 598556 )

      Yeah, this doesn't add up.

      Walmart stresses that the robots are there to supplement humans, not replace them... shelf checks can cost a major retailer hundreds of millions of dollars per year.

      So either they are going to save hundreds of millions of dollars a year by paying employees less (fewer hours or fewer employees), or they're going to have them start doing things with their time that they aren't doing now. Which seems more likely?

      • Yeah, this doesn't add up.

        Walmart stresses that the robots are there to supplement humans, not replace them... shelf checks can cost a major retailer hundreds of millions of dollars per year.

        So either they are going to save hundreds of millions of dollars a year by paying employees less (fewer hours or fewer employees), or they're going to have them start doing things with their time that they aren't doing now. Which seems more likely?

        Wally World is now run hard by accountants, and they don't make a move that isn't designed to increase profits. The problem of course is that you can increase profits in the short term that harms you long term. People permantly unemployed arent much at shopping, and we cant have everyone living off the government.

  • by RhettLivingston ( 544140 ) on Thursday October 26, 2017 @08:00PM (#55441389) Journal

    In 2003, Walmart announced plans to RFID tag everything in the store and track it to the shelf it was on 24/7. So, I'll believe it when I see it.

  • Why hasn't any major retailer in North America dug into this technology yet?

    http://www.rfidjournal.com/articles/view?4737

    That is my biggest peeve when I go to a store. Bad or missing price tags. Companies spend buttloads of time trying to keep up with price changes, sales, changing inventory, etc. So why not use RFID shelf tags? They are about $5 for each digital tag now. The ability to change prices from a server room would probably save them money within the first few months of deployment.

    • They are about $5 for each digital tag now.

      That seemed ridiculously pricey, so I looked it up. RFID tags currently cost between 7 and 15 cents. Typo?

      RFID tags seem a bit like a solution in search of a problem. Bar codes are pretty much "good enough", as I haven't really experienced frustrations like you describe in stores I frequent. But I'd bet the real issue is that manufactures probably aren't terribly interested in losing 7-15 cents per unit when margins on low-cost items are already razor-thin, for the sole purpose of making things easier a

      • But think about it, with RFID on everything you could obsolete cashiers altogether. Just drive the card through the door, scan all the RFID's in the cart, and the RFID on your credit card, all good-to-go.
  • As this photo of the prototype of Walmart's shelf-scanning robot shows, prolonged exposure to such a work environment is not without consequences.

    https://funnypictures.toofunny.pics/wp-content/uploads/2017/04/walmart-visitors1.jpg

  • ... and they all lived happily ever after!

    The End!

    Thanks, Wal-Mart! Please tell us another one!
  • Yup. And 640K ought to be enough for anybody.

  • by RubberDogBone ( 851604 ) on Thursday October 26, 2017 @09:45PM (#55441819)

    Since I haven't found a job in my former and varied IT field, I am currently working in a retail store. It's as bad as they say but it beats unemployment.

    One of my duties is identifying where we need to restock. It's a major PIA and takes a long time. In theory, we know what we had at last inventory and we know what we have sold, and this should tell us what we need to restock. And our district warehouse tries to send us what we need to keep pace with sales.

    BUT this doesn't help us with products picked up from one shelf and put down somewhere else, or tell us anything about pilfered items. We recently discovered one of our shelves HAS been nearly entirely stolen, because we haven't sold much from that area. We do check it but we have a whole store to check. So nobody noticed everything was vanishing until I blew the whistle a few days ago. All that did was make my boss mad at me for finding it. Like it was my fault.

    We have a huge problem in my store of not having items inventory says we should have. It's so bad, customers calling to see if we have something generally ask us to go put hands on it.

    So it would be amazing if a robot could come into our store even once a week and do as much checking as possible. We workers would rather have a list of stuff to go fetch and move back to proper locations than trying to do both the find part and replace part. We would also LOVE having an idea of what we need to restock. We don't like not having stuff to sell.

    • by houghi ( 78078 )

      So how much time do you spend doing that and get paid for it. So say that it amounts to one person doing it all the time. They will not need that one person anymore. You can be that one person. See if you like unemployment better than doing that PIA restock stuff that took such a long time.

      And if you say "But it is only 1 hour a day" then they will cut one hour of your day, so you earn less.

      There is a reason that I never use the self checkout. It is my idea of helping the people hold on to their jobs.

  • That job sounds really boring. It should be banned. Human beings have a insane computer in their brain and we are paying people to walk around checking store shelves? What does it say about our civilization that we have humans doing this task? Any aliens assigned to watch Earth must be laughing their asses off at us (they are aliens so literally their mouth could be in their ass). Anyway, why the hell are there people trying to preserve this kind of work? Itâ(TM)s criminal to relegate humans to doing

  • > This helps workers get to the task of filling empty shelves, and that's a job that the company doesn't see ending any time soon ...and yet the Japanese have been doing this for years. If Walmart can't see that coming "soon", they're not looking very hard.

  • That has to be the best stocked Walmart I've ever seen - it works!!

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