An animated robotic platform could be the future of retail

An animated robotic platform could be the future of retail

Research led by RPI suggests a transformation in the shopping experience for customers

A vision of the future of shopping.

Changing customers’ shopping habits, exacerbated by the recent pandemic, has forced retailers to reimagine the way goods and services are handled. “Omni-channel services”—such as online purchase and in-store pickup, in-store returns, in-store shipping, and home delivery—have shifted in-store logistics once shoppers have done it to retailers. To share material and inventory handling equipment between customers online and in stores, researchers led by Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI) propose designing suburban multi-channel facilities and modular and robotic platforms that support their operation.

Omnichannel Facilities Supported by Modular and Mobile Robotic Platforms is supported by a grant of $497,610 from Raymond Company.

Retail and distribution operations are undergoing a major transformation, thanks to the rapid spread of e-commerce, changing consumer shopping behaviours, expectations for speed and product variety. These trends have been accelerated by the COVID-19 pandemic, with 40% of Americans trying a new way to shop. This translated to 31% of American households using a grocery delivery or online delivery service in a given month in 2020, a year-over-year increase of 193%.

As the nation’s largest private sector employer, retailers contribute $3.9 trillion to annual GDP. This research focuses on suburban retail stores that provide a personalized shopping experience and online services. These stores offer a wide variety of products, and have room to accommodate an extended backroom, dock doors, and tractor trailer access.

“From a logistical standpoint, we are already seeing a fundamental change in customer store interactions,” he said. Jennifer Pazor, associate professor of industrial and systems engineering and principal investigator for the project. “Before, customers completed the picking process themselves and the main logistical task of a store was to replenish store shelves.”

Pazur’s team is collaborating with the Institute for Material Handling and Logistics at the Karlsruhe Institute of Technology, a group led by Professor Kay Formans.

The team’s vision is that retail stores won’t disappear, but they also won’t look or function like the ones we shop today. Instead, it will be explicitly transformed and designed so that inventory, labor, material handling equipment, and infrastructure can be shared to meet multiple customer needs.

The team will design, build, and prototype a modular, mobile robotic platform that uses a robotic arm to automate several related picking, sorting, and placing procedures in the proposed multi-channel facility. The modular platform is designed to be interchangeable for different in-store use cases and to be moved using forklift trucks or automated guided vehicles. The team will also build a more comprehensive simulation model of the proposed multichannel facility for an economic assessment of the team’s facility and material handling equipment designs.

“Customers, you and I, want multi-channel services, but the reality is that many companies struggle to provide such services,” Pazor said. “This research provides innovation in new facility designs and material handling equipment so that multi-channel services can flourish.”

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