Automation in the Retail Space: Is It Closer Than We Think?

Written By: Kevin Darby

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Would you eat at a restaurant where Rosie brought your meal or Max took your order? With recent advancements in retail automation, it could happen.

I often joke with my wife about what it would look like if I took my two passions in life–designing and building warehouse automation systems and cooking–and combined them into one enterprise, an automation café. All the food would be delivered automatically, and the wait staff would be in the form of some fun type of HMI (Human Machine Interface) screen.

Over the years, I have had fun dreaming of how something like this might look and function. Would the conveyors used to deliver the food be placed over top of the tables or come up from under the floor? I like to envision the waiter on the HMI screen being a Max Headroom-like character, but perhaps the entire restaurant would be run by robots delivering food like Rosie in the Jetsons. Inevitably, the more I begin to work out the details, the more I begin to question if the technology is really there to do something like this. However, recently I’ve started to think it might not be as far off as I once thought. Here are four examples of why:

  • At Bastian Solutions, we are having more and more customers inquire about, and in one case purchase, automation for the retail space. The one purchase was for a photo supply store in New York City called B&H Photo. Since it is located in Manhattan, B&H has a limited amount of retail space, but a good amount of storage in its basement. The company now uses a conveyor system to automatically transport customer orders picked in their basement to the store’s checkout counters. B&H Photo Case Study >>
  • Recently a restaurant chain inquired about using a robot solution we had designed for automated bottle picking for the wine & spirits distribution industry in their new restaurants. A robot mounted on a mini-load ASRS crane would pick bottles of wine from a bottle racking system. It is essentially a robot version of the Wine Angels at the Aureole restaurant in Las Vegas. Watch animation of the Texas de Brazil bottle picking robot >>
  • A few years ago a company in Florida inquired about building an automated convenience store. Basically, the store would act as a huge vending machine for the items you would purchase at a convenience store. You would purchase the items, and they would automatically be delivered to your car in minutes.
  • This past fall, I received a call from someone looking to automate the delivery of food and beverages at a stadium. You would order your food and drinks through an application on your phone or a kiosk, and your order would be automatically delivered to a station within a few seats of you.

Clearly, there is a growing interest in automation in the retail space as the above examples illustrate, but why is this interest not widespread? I think there are a number of reasons, the biggest being cost. B&H could justify their automation in light of very expensive New York City retail space costs, but few retail stores pay New York City rent. Texas de Brazil looked at the automated wine bottle pickings as an entertainment or store design expense, not something justified by an ROI of its operation. The automated convenience store and the automatic stadium food and beverage delivery system concepts believe people will pay for the convenience of goods being delivered right to them, but is it enough to pay for the automation?

Just as many of these same barriers existed for automation in warehouses, I believe these barriers for automation in the retail space will fall as automation prices drop, operation costs continue to rise, and our desire for convenience expands. Ten years ago nobody thought people would buy products on line and have them shipped to them, but online shopping has exploded.

As a society, we are becoming increasingly comfortable with buying a consumer product with little or no human interaction, getting products instantaneously and interacting with automation. Maybe my idea of an automation café is not so crazy or far off as I expected. I look forward to seeing what the future brings as automation grows in the retail space.

What do you expect or want to see as automation in the retail sector grows?

I have over 15 years of experience working in the material handling and production equipment industries. Most of this experience has been in the beverage industry, but I enjoy learning about new businesses and I am a quick learner. I have consulted for numerous companies; project managed large material handling projects and sold complex distribution projects.

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2 comments

  1. Bill Galbraith says:

    Nice Kevin!!

  2. This is the only time I’ve been to your website. Thanks for providing more details.

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