On July 14, Walmart announced its latest partnership with robotics company Symbotic to drive speed and efficiency at the retail giant’s regional distribution centers (RDCs). This rollout, which will bring robotics to 25 out of 42 RDCs, will take several years to complete, according to Walmart.
The announcement follows a pilot starting in 2017 that brought the robotic technology system to a distribution center in Brooksville, Florida. There, freight was sorted, stored, retrieved, and packed using automation—further optimizing the system itself and the supply chain.
“This is a game changer,” said Joe Metzger, Executive Vice President of Supply Chain Operations at Walmart U.S. in a blog post. “This move will fundamentally alter how products get to stores.”
In pre-robot times, products arrive at one of Walmart’s RDCs and are moved or stored manually. When the products are ready to go to a store, they’re manually packed Tetris-style into a trailer for transit. Once it arrives at a store, associates manually unload the trailer and get the items where they need to be.
Symbotic facilitates a different method.
“This system uses a complex algorithm to store cases like puzzle pieces using high-speed mobile bots—operating with a precision that speeds the intake process and increases the accuracy of freight being stored for future orders,” said Metzger.
“By using dense modular storage, it also expands building capacity. And by using high-speed palletizing robotics to organize and optimize freight, it creates custom store- and aisle-ready pallets, which take the guesswork out of unloading trucks.”
While this all sounds great—a little red flag may go up in your head. Does this reduce Walmart supply chain jobs? Are the manual labor workers let go? According to Walmart, no.
“Along with saving time, limiting out-of-stocks and increasing the speed of stocking and unloading, we’ll also have the chance to train associates on how to use the new equipment, creating new skills and preparing them for jobs in the future,” Metzger said. Jobs are also created in IT and in servicing and maintaining the robots.
Walmart’s push for expediting processes
This isn’t Walmart’s first go-round with robots. In November of 2020 Walmart decided to end its five-year experiment with Bossa Nova Robotics, a company that provided robotic shelf scanning and inventory operations. After announcing in early 2020 they were going to expand the rollout of Bossa Nova systems, they essentially took it back, stating that humans can do just as good a job as robots performing inventory checks.
The partnership with Symbotic will most definitely increase speed and efficiency within Walmart’s supply chain, but it will also help with something else important: staying in competition with Amazon.
Amazon has been using robotics in its fulfillment centers since its 2012 acquisition of Kiva Systems and cites that it’s able to store 40 percent more inventory because of it. While Walmart is just now hopping on the robotics train, it’s better late than never.
Most Walmart customers will probably never see inside its warehouses, but they’ll certainly feel the effects this industry-leading change will incur.
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