Automation and Robotics in Retail Architecture 

For the past decade, we’ve seen a push from retailers to incorporate robotics and automation into their facilities.

Since the 2010 launch of Pepper, a 4-ft tall humanoid robot capable of understanding human emotion, SoftBank has sold over 12,000 Peppers to various retailers worldwide. These robots do everything from serve ice cream and greet customers at restaurants to dance with customers in an electronics store.

However, most of the robots deployed have increased efficiencies and allowed associates to spend more time on customer service. If customers see robots at all, they’re typically cleaning the floors or scanning the shelves for inventory management.

Many retailers and grocers are looking to add Micro Fulfillment Centers (MFC), sometimes also called Local Fulfillment Centers, to their facilities by expanding or remodeling locations. These MFCs often include automated equipment to assist in assembling and packing orders. However, not everyone is ready to add MFCs to their stores, and you may be wondering what the implications to your existing spaces are if you start adding various automated equipment to your stores.

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Getting started

There are plenty of low-impact solutions to start adding robotics to your facility that don’t require expanding your existing buildings. A few years ago, Walmart began using some of these low-impact approaches to handle various repetitive tasks such as: checking inventory, sorting products, floor cleaning, and fulfilling online orders, allowing store associates to spend more time on customer service[i]. Other retailers like Albertsons, Best Buy,, and Lowe’s are all also using robots to complete various functions in store.

Some retailers like Amazon, Kroger, and Walmart have been using robots in warehouses for years to fulfill orders and manage inventory. In 2012[ii], Amazon purchased Kiva Systems, to help create the warehouse robot, turning Kiva’s mobile robots into their own order-fulfillment operations. Their autonomous mobile robots (AMRs) can efficiently carry up to 750 lbs. as they maneuver around the warehouses.

When you consider adding these to your facilities, the first question after cost is whether valuable square footage will be needed. Fortunately, with many low-impact solutions, the space required is minimal. The robots run for several hours before autonomously returning to their docking station to recharge. Your biggest space consideration will be finding a place for the docking stations that is out of the way so the robots can recharge.

Expanding your fleet

If online orders at any of your stores have increased dramatically, you’ve probably already started looking into what a MFC setup would cost and which model will work for your business. Not all automated solutions are created equal and solutions that upgrade easily as technology advances are ideal.

Many retailers have been working on creating fully automated warehouses for online order fulfillment. In 2018, Kroger announced their exclusive partnership with online grocery retailer Ocado and started work on their first automated warehouse in the U.S. The robot-operated warehouse outside of Dallas will be a 350,000 SF facility, where robots move along a grid-floor to fulfill online grocery orders, taking 6 to 7 minutes to fulfill an average grocery order of 50 items.[iii]

In January 2020, Walmart announced the successful launch of their 20,000 SF automated warehouse in Salem, NH[iv]. Developed specifically for Walmart by Alert Innovation, Alphabot, a first of its kind piece of technology, helps enable quicker, more efficient order fulfillment, completing an average 40-item order within 4 minutes[v]. The Alphabot systems can be built as high as 48-ft to utilize all available space in a facility. The system’s fully autonomous bots operate on three axes of motion[vi], creating a more flexible system than traditionally found in fulfillment centers and warehouses, helping minimize the footprint needed to house one of these systems.

These solutions have included a full warehouse or a building expansion to house the systems. There may be site constraints or ordinances in place that could impact the design, increase costs, or even eliminate the possibility. Another option is to retrofit your back-of-house to become partially automated. Depending on the amount of space needed, there may be a need to repurpose portions of the sales floor. While this may at first seem like a low impact alternative, reconfiguring space and changing the use of that space may have code implications the necessitate other changes. Things to consider include, among other things, altered egress paths, fire protection systems, lighting, HVAC, and signage.

Additional online order automation

Many other retailers are following suit with a variety of smaller-scale, less expensive robots that allow them to compete with giants like Amazon, Kroger, and Walmart. The Gap is using Kindred’s robot to sort, pack, and ship items.

Depending on the robotics and automation system a retailer decides to deploy, its building needs can change dramatically. With a system like Alert Innovation’s Alphabot, buildings can be built taller to minimize the footprint necessary to create a fulfillment center. Other small-scale systems can be implemented that place online orders into bins for employees to package for shipment. These smaller-scale systems have minimal impact on space and improve overall efficiency.

Regardless of which system a retailer chooses, a higher level of coordination between architects, engineers, and the system developer is needed than with traditional distribution hubs and retail facilities.

Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, the push for automation was clearly on its way. Going forward, we expect automation and robotics to continue to play even bigger roles in maximizing efficiency and meeting customer demand.

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