InOrbit was excited to recently host another in our ongoing series of webinars exploring automation across various sectors; this time focusing on the state of automation in retail. As with the previous InOrbit webinars, CEO Florian Pestoni hosted the discussion with some fantastic guest speakers sharing their insights and expertise.
If you didn’t have a chance to join us, the webinar is now available for free on-demand. Although you might want to read on and explore some of our key takeaways from the discussion first.
Florian was joined for this webinar, entitled “Robots and the Retail Revolution” by Martin Hitch, the CEO at Coros, whose job is helping shippers and carriers reduce shipping errors and improve on-time delivery with insanely accurate, real-time data. Martin previously co-founded and was CEO at Bossa Nova Robotics, which pioneered the use of fully autonomous robots to capture visual inventory data in retail stores, process at the edge and make restocking decisions for the supply chain. Additionally, we were joined by Thaddeus Segura, Director of Product for NextGen Inventory Management at Walmart. His focus there is on vetting and applying emerging technologies, then finding solutions to in-store and supply chain challenges.
Clearly, our guests know the retail automation space extremely well and they shared some fantastic insights. Here are our top 3 takeaways from the webinar.
1 - Details matter
Thaddeus explained how omnichannel solutions for retail challenges, particularly as they touch the supply chain, are more popular than ever but are still problematic due to a lack of accuracy. There is a real industry need for an as yet unprecedented level of inventory accuracy “in the past you could get by with a little bit of margin of error. You can keep a couple of extra items on the shelf if your merchandise showed up a day late, or 3 days late, it was ok, you might run out of a few items, but at the end of the day it was ok,” he explained, “We now need, at an item level, 100% inventory accuracy at all times, and 100% visibility for what’s going to arrive late.“
Thaddeus’ contention is that their biggest problem right now, even with labor and supply chain being what they are, is that Walmart and others are relying on inaccurate inventory levels to display what's available online. If your retail store becomes a proxy fulfillment center, this is clearly a problem. Thaddeus sees this as the primary problem to be addressed through smarter technology and automation in 2022 and 2023.
Martin added that supply chains have evolved upwards, by layering up and bringing new systems together. Now though, we need to broaden the scale of technologies being implemented in the supply chain and dial in our focus (so not just up but out, and down), so that everything is connected and verified along the way. “if you don’t get in the weeds, and into that detail, you’re just aggregating inaccurate data.” Martin believes that it’s now time to go down to the unit level. That’s also exactly what his company Coros does. Focuses on actual numbers, not just forecasts. Measuring supply chain and inventory data at that drilled-down level benefits every system that sits on top of it.
2 - The digitization of the supply chain is happening but work needs to be done
Aligned with the previous comments around the value of data and digitization. Thaddeus sees problems in retail warehouses because of siloed data. Automation only helps as far as we have the right systems to support it. Robots and automation have problems fairly often still, inevitably there is a margin of error. The robot manufacturers, the engineers are saying they just need to build smarter robots, but that doesn’t address the larger ecosystem considerations, including the human in that loop. As we see a greater proliferation and integration of robots all of these support systems will need digitization and connection. As this happens error rates should go down across the board simultaneously.
This is of course what Coros focuses on as well, promoting the “visible supply chain” tracking cargo through its entire lifecycle. Back in his Bossa Nova days, Martin explained they were already very good at understanding what was on the shelf. “We were great at finding the problems, but getting the associate on the ground to be more efficient was difficult.” The reality to date is that no one has a 100% accurate WMS. These are challenges being worked on right now, including smarter human integration into automated solutions. As Florian jumped in to point out even with 99% accuracy out of 100,000 orders a day, 1000 of them are wrong and that’s just not acceptable in the long run.
Martin continued by explaining that digitization can be seen in simple ways. Warehouse management systems and transport management systems that don’t connect, or even do connect but don’t validate between them are a real problem. When an issue inevitably occurs in a retail warehouse, bad data will travel the supply chain, and its garbage in, garbage out. That is why we need accuracy verified, at every stage. At Coros they can track what’s going onto the trailers and then that can become the on-the-ground truth. What's actually leaving a warehouse for a store, or a store for delivery. Coros technology essentially upgrades a WMS plan, by scanning everything going out, and course-correcting on the dock door. Processing on the edge for immediate comparisons between what a WMS says, and the actual count is on a trailer.
When a UPS package ends up on a FedEx trailer, that just can’t be fixed in time to make a difference to the customer or store, there’s just not enough slack in the carrier network to make up for time lost due to errors that happen at the source. So understanding how a robot’s data can be used to improve the relationship with the workers around it, a dock associate, for example, needs more attention.
3 - Retailers want flexible, modular solutions
Thaddeus explained how data and automation technology manufacturers need to start building more modular systems. Retailers need flexibility. If manufacturers don’t build modular tools but try to own an end-to-end solution retailers are going to be frustrated. If a retailer wants to see a single element of a larger solution change, but a fix isn’t easily supported by the manufacturer, Thaddeus believes those manufacturers will be left behind.
There has to be conscious thought put around how manufacturers design their system, so pieces can be interchanged quickly without having to rebuild an entire stack.
As Florian pointed out, managing autonomous and diverse technologies is also something InOrbit is very familiar with. As a hardware-agnostic platform, interoperability has always been critical to the InOrbit ethos. Driven by our dedication to effective robot operations, or RobOps, we certainly appreciate that robust orchestration of complex technologies requires openness.
BONUS INSIGHT - Consider the staff
As a closing note, both Thaddeus and Martin emphasized the importance and challenges of education for associates and other staff at the store level around new technologies. “To be 100% honest we haven’t cracked the code (around education). It is a major pain point” Thaddeus explained. He continued by noting how a few years ago people were very concerned about robots taking their jobs. With the pandemic and the labor shortages that may have been mitigated some, but there’s still a real uneasiness from staff around new tech and that requires more work. We need to have faith that the employees will be a part of the solution because at scale they are an integral part of the equation for the successful integration of automation and other new technologies.
Martin added that with Coros, and in his previous role at Bossa Nova, they found a lot of success in taking the time to sit down and actually talk with employees. Being clear, and explaining to them that not only is a robot in the workplace not there to take their job, but in fact, it's going to do the part of their job that they hate, made all the difference. A human touch to education down to the role level is very important. Providing the proper context around new technology will often make them happy to work harmoniously with robots.
We hope you enjoyed exploring this fascinating field of retail automation and new technologies. Please consider joining InOrbit for our next webinar, to be announced very soon.
If you haven’t gotten enough, we’ve also explored more of the challenges facing retail automation and the industry implications of new technologies in our recent free retail whitepaper.
Don’t forget, the full conversation with Florian, Thaddeus, and Martin can be viewed right now for free on-demand. We suggest you pull up a chair to watch the video now.