Automation can solve business challenges in new and non-human ways, from helping grocers stock shelves to fulfilling delivery orders. Even products themselves are part of a connected retail experience that more Americans will encounter as retailers accelerate their technology investments because of the pandemic. Specifically, robotics will become a valuable tool to create more personalized, convenient and safer shopping environments.
Robotic process automation (RPA) has historically shown impressive results, including operational efficiencies and cost savings in the industrial world. In an automobile manufacturing plant, for example, RPA is now an intrinsic part of building a car.
Today, RPA is coming out of the factory and into the store, the warehouse, and even to your doorstep. Robotics has received greater attention during the COVID-19 pandemic, given its ability to augment highly manual human work, such as inventory management and order picking, to support the explosion of online shopping. With consumers reluctant to shop in person, retail industry stakeholders — suppliers, manufacturers and retailers — are working together to speed up the application of RPA in various retail environments and delivery scenarios.
For this technology to support today’s urgent use cases, there needs to be a common language, such as global data standards, to allow businesses to easily identify, manage, and share product data with trading partners, supply chains, and customers.
From Schnuck Markets’ inventory-management robot Tally, to the robotic arms that power Ocado’s all-online grocery platform, robots rely on several key data sets to execute tasks. Two critical components are:
Additionally, robots often exist in ecosystems where other technology works together to deliver expected outcomes. For instance, a curbside pickup order may involve artificial intelligence (A.I.) to analyze consumer data such as purchase histories, plus blockchain to record a product’s supply-chain journey. All along the way, robotics can reduce supply-chain complexity by automating picking and packing. A common language of data is necessary as a foundation for this automated ecosystem, from point of manufacture up to presentation to the consumer.
The increased use of automation and technology doesn’t render humans obsolete; it’s actually helping us make better business decisions. Guidance at a human level, especially during times of crisis, is still required to ensure that desired outcomes are achieved. Technology such as A.I. and robotics functions better with employee engagement, to effectively ingest, digest and disseminate the data required for a given task or problem.
In the context of the COVID-19 pandemic, robotics will continue to be explored to deliver products to customers efficiently, and to aid distanced workforces. Ultimately, deployed in combination with accurate and consistent data based on standards, robots will prove highly valuable not just for automating manual tasks, but also for enabling collaboration with humans, to deliver on the urgent needs of these uncertain times.
Melanie Nuce is Senior Vice President of Corporate Development with GS1 US.
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