Walmart Is Testing Grocery-Picking Robots Made in North Billerica

As the e-commerce market rapidly becomes more digital and decentralized, it makes sense for retail and tech companies to dive into robotics to streamline tasks like assembling orders. Amazon did it since 2003, establishing right in our neck of the woods (North Reading, Mass.) its division Amazon Robotics—now the company’s largest east coast research and development organization.

To keep up with Amazon’s robotic army, in the last couple of years Walmart has begun using robots for shelf-scanning and inventory tracking. Its first pilot programs were conducted with Bossa Nova, a robotics company with offices in San Francisco and Pittsburgh; but in August, it was a local robotics company to land a deal with Bentonville.

Formed in 2013 as Alert Corporation, North Billerica, Mass.-based Alert Innovation is working with Walmart to test a new, custom-designed robotic system that picks customers’ grocery orders. The system will start fulfill orders at Walmart’s supercenter in Salem, New Hampshire by the end of the year. If all goes well, the company will start commercializing in the fourth quarter of 2019.

The name of the new technology is Alphabot, and here’s what it looks like.

“It’s an automated storage and retrieval system in which mobile robots are the only moving parts,” said John Lert, founder and CEO of Alert Innovation. “They can operate linearly, within the aisle… on a floor, on a deck, and they can climb vertically, they can turn themselves into a lift.”

Alphabot gets into action when customers place an order online. Randomly accessing storage locations, they move in three dimensions to pick the required items; then, they bring them to workstations, where human pickers transfer items from product containers to order containers.

The system may sound similar to the robots that Amazon uses in its fulfillment centers, but Lert said that there’s a major difference in terms of efficient utilization of the space.

“A huge constraint in putting these automation systems is how much space they require,” Lert pointed out. “We use the whole volume of a given space… so we have much higher space efficiency than any other competing system.”

Alert Innovation, which now has around 70 employees, started talking with Walmart about a partnership in 2016. Around the same time, the company secured an undisclosed round of funding.

“Getting the strategic partnership with Walmart was a key element in being able to get the company funded,” Lert said.

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