Is automated stock control coming to a store near you?

Tally-RobotI wrote recently about a new delivery robot being developed by the team behind Skype.  The automated device will trundle along pavements doing the ‘last mile’ delivery of produce to customer.

It’s increasingly likely that larger chunks of the process will be automated however, with the stock control aspect foremost among them.

A new shelf-scanning robot from Simbe Robotics aims to automate some of the more routine aspects of stock management.

Introducing Tally

The device, called Tally, trundles along the aisles of a store or storeroom and automatically records the shelves that need to be restocked.

The process of restocking shelves is a pretty straightforward one, but doing it efficiently is hugely important for retailers.  Huge sums can be lost if it’s done poorly, and the process can take up huge chunks of time in each store.

The makers already believe the robot is capable of functioning well in a small store, and can scan the contents in around an hour.  They suggest a larger store might require a fleet of robots to ensure efficient operations.

How it works

Tally trundles around the store automatically checking the shelves as it goes.  It’s looking to see whether stock levels are running low or even whether the items are correctly placed on shelves or priced up accordingly.

It does this via four cameras that are capable of scanning the shelves from either side, with vision from ground level up to eight feet.

The device is supported by the excellent data most stores have regarding their layout and the display of products on those shelves.  This data is fed into a map that Tally uses to navigate the store, and understand what items are on what shelf.

It uses this retail planogram to compare what should be where, to what is actually on the shelves, with all of the data collected sent back to a server for analysis by the retailer.

The future of retail

Suffice to say, the team at Simbe have grand ambitions for retail, with Tally merely the first of a team of robots that have the potential to automate large chunks of retailing.

“Our primary vision is automating retail,” they say. “We think there’s a huge opportunity to automate mundane tasks, to free people up to focus on customer service.”

Of course, the technology is still relatively untested so the Simbe team are a long way from their ultimate goal, but it’s an interesting insight into the range of things robots are capable of.  Check out Tally in action via the video below.

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12 thoughts on “Is automated stock control coming to a store near you?

  1. Robots and Artificial Intelligence could replace almost the entire workforce in the next 20 years. Even entertainment could be populated with robots and AI, eliminating humans. What would that do for the economy? It would be wrecked. Without gainful employment, who will buy all the goods and services offered by this "consumer-based" economy? Who will be left employed? Who will have any money? It's just like the situation we have now where people with good jobs have been replaced by the millions with cheap labor in other countries. Companies are cutting each other's throats by replacing jobs in this manner. We already have a relatively jobless "recovery" happening in the U.S. What do you think it will be like when businesses think that the unrestricted use of robots and AI will increase their profits? Do you really think this will only affect low-end jobs? Artificial Intelligence can replace any human activity. Bye-bye jobs and bye-bye U.S. economy.

  2. I'd love to see if it can do non-trivial things, like how full is a bulk bin, or how many plumbing fittings are in a bin at Home Depot, or even better, are the fittings that are in there what is SUPPOSED to be in there (people scramble the contents of these bins all the time – it's maddening for both the retailer and the consumer trying to find something).

  3. Wonder how well it handles rogue kids running and skating around the store…I've had some people run into me hard enough to knock me down, will the robot be able to keep balance?

  4. The problem with gaps on shelves (and I speak as one who works in retail) is that whilst there might be the required stock in the warehouse, it might be buried at the bottom of a roll-cage parked behind three other roll cages. Believe it or not, our store doesn't even know what stock the distribution centre has sent out this morning (assuming they bothered to send it- quite often they send out stuff that has been discontinued and that we can't even sell), and there may be other priorities, eg chilled foods that have to be put out first.

    Even if the stuff is reasonably accessible, very often we are running very short on available staff due to sickness, staff holidays, and the occasional skiving staff member. Not to mention occasionally lazy staff members who will tell customers that we don't have the stock when it is in the warehouse and readily accessible!

    No, this device will only disappoint customers who think that they will always be able to get what they want when they come into the store as there are too many inbuilt (and occasionally willfully perverse) inefficiencies in the system to ever get it right.

  5. I worked as an overnight stocker at Walmart for 6 years. I knew the day would come for robots to take over. They always cut hours to make payrolls cheaper…well now Tally will take all the jobs and payroll can be just a handful of people.

  6. I worked hands on with these bots when I worked at a warehouse. They crash or run into Each other so I'd have to go in reset and reposition them or clear debris that fell out into their path that they couldn't go around. Super cool, but they would definitely run you over if you didn't know what you were doing. Mind you, they carry like 8 foot tall shelving that weights a ton and they only read the little squares on the floor to know where they're going

    • It's only a matter of upgrading with lidar sensors and inter-robot communication to decrease accidental errors. They only get more efficient from here on. Robots are starting to develop 3D machine vision.

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