Researchers see robotics as future of retail

  • December 19, 2022
  • Steve Rogerson

A moveable robotics platform could be the future of retail, according to researchers at New York’s Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute.

Shifting customer shopping habits, exacerbated by the recent pandemic, have forced retailers to reimagine the way goods and services are handled. Omnichannel services – such as buy online and pickup in store, in-store returns, ship from store, and home delivery – have shifted the in-store logistics once done by shoppers to retailers.

To share inventory and material handling equipment among online and in-store customers, researchers led by Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI) are proposing to design suburban omnichannel facilities and modular and robotic platforms that support their operation.

Retail and distribution operations are undergoing a vast transformation, thanks to the rapid proliferation of ecommerce, changing consumer shopping behaviour and expectations for speed and product variety. These trends have been accelerated due to the Covid-19 pandemic, where 40% of Americans tried a new shopping method. This translated into 31% of US households using an online grocery delivery or pickup service in a given month in 2020, a year-over-year increase of 193%.

As the USA’s largest private-sector employer, retailers contribute $3.9tn to the annual GDP. This research focuses on suburban retail stores that provide both an in-person shopping experience and online services. These stores offer a wide assortment of products, and have space to accommodate an extended backroom, dock doors and tractor trailer access.

“From a logistics point of view, we are already seeing a fundamental change in customer-store interactions,” said Jennifer Pazour, associate professor of industrial and systems engineering and the project’s principal investigator. “Previously, customers completed the picking process by themselves and the main logistical task of a store was replenishing store shelves.”

Pazour’s team is collaborating with the Institute for Material Handling & Logistics at Germany’s Karlsruhe Institute of Technology, a group led by Kai Furmans.

The team’s vision is that retail stores will not go away, but they will also not look or operate like the ones today. Instead, they will be transformed, designed explicitly so inventory, labour, material handling equipment, and infrastructure can be shared to fulfil multiple customer needs.

The team plans to design, build and lab-demonstrate a prototype modular and moveable robotic platform that uses a robotic arm to automate several relevant pick, sort and place actions in the proposed omnichannel facility. The modular platform is designed to be changeable for different in-store use cases and to be transported using forklift trucks or automated guided vehicles. The team also plans to build a more holistic simulation model of the proposed omnichannel facility to evaluate economically the team’s facility and material handling equipment designs.

“Customers, you and I, want omnichannel services, but the reality is that many companies are struggling to offer such services,” Pazour said. “This research provides innovation into new facility and material handling equipment designs so that omnichannel services can thrive.”

The research is supported by a $497,610 grant from the Raymond Corporation.