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Walmart launches robotic fulfilment system

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US retailer Walmart has integrated warehouse automation system Alphabot into its operations after undertaking tests for almost a year.

Technically an automated storage and retrieval system (ASRS), Alphabot was developed for Walmart by start-up Alert Innovation.

Walmart said Alphabot will “revolutionise the online grocery pickup and delivery process”.

The system is currently operating inside a 20,000ft2 (1,858m2) distribution centre in Salem, New Hampshire, using autonomous carts to retrieve ambient, refrigerated and frozen items ordered online.

Following retrieval, Alphabot delivers the products to a workstation, where a Walmart employee checks, bags and delivers the final order.

Walmart said that while human employees will continue to pick produce and other fresh items by hand, Alphabot will “help make the retrieval process for all other items easier and faster”.

Brian Roth, a senior manager of pickup automation and digital operations for Walmart US, said he believes Alphabot could fundamentally change Walmart’s online grocery operations.

“By assembling and delivering orders to associates, Alphabot is streamlining the order process, allowing associates to do their jobs with greater speed and efficiency.

“Ultimately, this will lower dispense times, increase accuracy and improve the entirety of online grocery.

“And it will help free associates to focus on service and selling, while the technology handles the more mundane, repeatable tasks.

Developed specially for Walmart by startup Alert Innovation, Alphabot helps to enable quicker, more efficient order picking

“This is going to have a transformative impact onWalmart’s supply chain. Alphabot is what we think of as micro-fulfillment – an inventive merger of e-commerce and brick and mortar methods.”

Alert Innovation said Alphabot is also part of an automated each-picking system, and is “the most capital-efficient and broadly scalable design of each of these solutions ever developed”.

At the heart of Alphabot technology is a mobile robot that can operate within a multilevel storage structure.

A fleet of these robots operates within a given system under control of a single master control system.

In an Alphabot ASRS, the bots are the only moving part – there are no lifts, conveyors, or any other material-handling mechanism.

The addition of a picking workstation creates a ‘goods-to-picker’ each-picking technology in which the bots themselves flow product and order containers through these workstations, where pickers transfer goods from product containers to order containers.

Since the robots move vertically, workstations can be arrayed at multiple vertical elevations, enabling space efficiency in high-throughput systems.

Alphabot has been operating at its pilot location in Salem since mid-2019.

The store will continue to serve as Alphabot’s home while the process is studied, refined and perfected.

After collecting associate and customer feedback, next steps for a broader Alphabot rollout will be assessed.

Until then, the system will continue to assist associates in Salem.

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