Walmart is deploying shelf-scanning robots to some 50 stores after initially testing the technology in a few locations, the retail giant announced in a Thursday blog post.
While the robots won't necessarily be stocking the shelves themselves, they will be scanning for out-of-stock items, making note of incorrect prices, or checking that the correct label is on a product, the post said. Doing so would free up many employees from having to check the shelves manually.
The program is part of Walmart's effort to use automation to handle "repeatable, predictable and manual" tasks, the post said. The goal is to free up workers to be able to spend more time helping customers and selling items.
SEE: Hiring kit: Robotics engineer (Tech Pro Research)
The initial tests took place in a few Walmart stores across Arkansas, Pennsylvania, and California. As the company rolls it out to 50 more stores, it will rely on customer and employee feedback to shape its future use of automation, the post said.
The use of robots to check on out-of-stock items could also help save customers time, guaranteeing that more products would be in stock when they visited a store. Walmart also noted in the post that it hopes the technology makes the shopping experience more convenient.
Automation—robotics especially—have been a sensitive subject in conversations around the future of work. While Walmart claims to be using the technology to complement its human workers, and free them up to accomplish more complex tasks, the same isn't true for every implementation of the technology.
In fast food, for example, a robot named Flippy has been used to make to burgers. Additionally, the growth of autonomous vehicles has also been predicted to eventually be a major disruptor of the trucking market, with manufacturers like Tesla pushing full-steam ahead on such efforts. A widely-cited 2013 Oxford University study estimates that 47% of current US jobs could eventually be taken over by robots.
However, many have argued that automation and robotics, while great for menial tasks, won't take over full jobs any time soon. Others have posited that robots killing jobs isn't that big of a deal, because they will create other, more interesting jobs for human workers.
Whatever their impact, the use of robots will likely remain controversial for some time. However, a massive firm like Walmart introducing them in their stores, which are likely patronized by a diverse population, could help reduce potential stigmas and get everyday consumers more comfortable with the concept of robot-human collaboration.
The 3 big takeaways for TechRepublic readers
- Walmart is using robots to scans shelves for out-of-stock items, incorrect prices, and missing labels, freeing up employees to work with customers.
- The program started with a few US stores, and will be expanding to 50 more stores, relying on customer and employee feedback as it grows.
- Robots are controversial, but Walmart's program could help reduce the stigma around them and normalize these automation technologies.
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Conner Forrest has nothing to disclose. He doesn't hold investments in the technology companies he covers.
Conner Forrest is a Senior Editor for TechRepublic. He covers enterprise technology and is interested in the convergence of tech and culture.