The newest robotics transforming logistics

Robotics took center stage for innovation in logistics at NRF's BIG Show 2018. (NRF)

NEW YORK—The transformative powers of robotics and AI in the realm of logistics and postsale retail operations took center stage during a Q&A led by Seth Webb, managing director at Tusk Ventures, in the Innovation Lab at NRF's BIG Show 2018. 

Joining Webb on the sage were Vikrum Aiyer, head of public policy and strategic communications at Postmates; Christopher McCrae, manager of retail logistics and CISD at Wakefern Food Co.; and Nick Saunders, senior VP of sales and marketing at Quiet Logistics, all of whom discussed how technology is transforming how they are doing business. 

Saunders, who works for a third-party fulfillment, store, shipment and pick and pack company, said that Quiet Logistics is found great success in using an autonomous robotic solution. 

"Today's customer wants efficiency, exceptional customer service, unparalleled speed and maximum flexibility," he told the crowd. "We design our systems in a flexible way so it can respond to peak services, and we use automation to achieve this."

The use of robotics allows the company to scale a lot more quickly, especially during peak periods. As an example, Saunders said that Quiet had shipped 1.6 million units using Locus robotic technology and on Black Friday alone they shipped 330,000 units. 

"Robots working alongside people in a warehouse makes productivity better," he said. 

While Wakefern's use of technology is slightly is different than that of Quiet Logistics, it still uses an innovative approach to incorporating machines alongside human workers. 

At NRF's BIG Show 2017, Wakefern met Locus Systems and immediately began a partnership to improve the company's food stocking program for its clients such as ShopRite. Seeing that managers walking the supermarket aisles is an expensive use of their time, Wakefern needed a solution to account for out-of-stock items. 

Today, the company has out-of-stock cameras on shopping carts in 50 stores. So as shoppers walk up and down aisles, the computer is alerting Wakefern as to where an item needs to be replenished. The platform is also used to tell if there are too many staff working the POS.

"We want to create an ecosystem of better efficiencies, lowering labor costs," McCrae said. He added that the computer vision in the shopping carts is the same technology being developed to drive autonomous vehicles.

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Finally, Aiyer spoke about how Postmates' delivery service is the inverse of most other models. While many retailers are putting warehouses in the outskirts of cities, Postmates treats the entire city as the warehouse. 

"We index the product offerings at local stores and put tools in the hands of the brick-and-mortar to distribute goods," he said. 

Currently, Postmates does 2 million transactions a month and retailer partners increase their sales by 3.7% through the partnership. The only delivery that is not profitable for Postmates are the ones that literally go just that last mile from retailer to consumer. So the company is working with robotics companies to test coolers on wheels and other automation.

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Postmates is also working on a pilot with Ford for delivery through autonomous vehicles. 

So what will 2020 bring for delivery, operations and fulfillment?

"We're going to see more and more transportation as a service," Aiyer said. "But more technology platforms need to work hand and hand with the government in order to get these things in place."