IMAGE: Bossa Nova Robotics

Walmart’s experiment with robotics

Enrique Dans

Imagine you’re at the supermarket deciding which breakfast cereal to buy and suddenly, out of the corner of your eye, you see a silent white figure gliding toward you, abot as tall as the shelves, illuminating them with a beam of white light. When it reaches you, it gently veers round you, continuing with its task unaided.

You’ve just met a robot produced by Bossa Nova Robotics, a company focused on the retail sector founded in 2005 and now directed by Bruce McWilliams, which recently obtained $17.5 million in a round of financing and that has just cut an agreement with Walmart to use its stock control robots to identify misplaced or mislabeled items and provide the data to employees and shelf fillers. The average Walmart has around two hundred thousand products covering an area of ​​several thousand square meters, and keeping them ordered usually requires the constant work of several employees armed with handheld scanners. Tasking robots with this job, even taking into account that putting things right must still be carried out manually because robots cannot handle packets, jars and cans, saves money and relieves humans of an extremely tedious task, while reducing errors in the manual scanning processes. The robots use LiDAR, laser scanners that allow them to build an image of their surroundings, and can easily avoid obstacles of any kind.

What’s interesting about this experiment is that Walmart customers have soon overcome their curiosity and now ignore them, going about their shopping as normal, with the exception of the occasional idiot who pushes or kicks the robots. The response from store employees has been even more surprising: they recognize that the robots are there to help, have given them names, which they then display on a badge with that name, and are happy to explain their role to customers, even after the trial period during which they were accompanied by staff. Walmart staff are thankful to the robots for relieving them of the task of shelf checking, and consider them a tool at their service, a technology that helps them or works for them. In other words, they don’t see themselves under threat of being replaced.

How many other everyday tasks will robots will robots be carrying out a few years from now? How many repetitive tasks to which humans add no value or perform poorly will be carried out by robots? What changes will be necessary to the way we think to adapt to this new reality? How will these robots evolve, and to what extent will our understanding of what a robot is to adapt and change?


(En español, aquí)

Enrique Dans

On the effects of technology innovation on people, companies and society (writing in Spanish at enriquedans.com since 2003)

Enrique Dans

Written by

Professor of Innovation at IE Business School and blogger at enriquedans.com

Enrique Dans

On the effects of technology innovation on people, companies and society (writing in Spanish at enriquedans.com since 2003)