What if Grocery Orders Were Prepared in a Tiny Robot Warehouse?

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Your local supermarket could soon be home to a miniature robotic warehouse. Boston-area startup Takeoff Technologies is developing what it calls micro fulfillment centers—small, heavily automated grocery distribution facilities that could be located inside existing supermarkets and used to quickly assemble orders for delivery or customer pickup. Putting them in existing stores near where customers live and shop can make actually getting food and other goods to consumers faster and cheaper than delivering groceries from remote, sprawling warehouses, says Takeoff CEO and cofounder Jose Vicente Aguerrevere. “When we place the fulfillment center right at the supermarket, then we take care of the last mile,” he says. Takeoff, which announced a $12.5 million Series B round of funding in January, plans to launch its first micro fulfillment center within an as-yet-unnamed grocery store this October, using about 10,000 square feet of its 50,000-square-foot space. There, and in other locations the company plans to launch, robots from warehouse logistics and automation company Knapp will shuttle bins of merchandise to human packers, who’ll grab products from the bins, verify they’re in good shape, and assemble them to fill customer orders. Ideally, a customer will be able to place an order for drive-through pickup with just a half-hour lead time. The process should be more efficient than existing services that send order pickers scurrying alongside shoppers to pluck items from ordinary store shelves, the company says. Using the bin system will avoid having to optimize robots to handle every conceivable item, including fragile produce.

Human employees can grab some bulky items and frequent add-ons, such as cases of bottled water, by hand. And the arrays of shelves and bots can be assembled in a store in just a few months, while traditional full-scale warehouses can take years to build and get online, says Takeoff cofounder and president Max Pedro.
“Those big distribution centers tend to be deployed in three years,” he says. “We’re deploying ours in three months.”

Artificial intelligence and data science tools will help optimize the placement of items in bins, he says. Certain items will have to be stored in certain places so they’re kept at the right temperature, and some groceries may even be stored in multiple bins so that they’re near frequent companion items and readily available. “We also know [for] each item, when the expiration date is,” Pedro says. “We actually have processes that we run at night that we take away the right items.”

Mixing robots and humans in fulfillment centers has become more prevalent in recent years, as retailers and warehouse operators look to meld human abilities—picking up oddly shaped and fragile merchandise and checking items for defects—with those of robots, like transporting boxes of items and automatically logging the work that’s been done.
Another company, Israel’s CommonSense Robotics, has also announced plans for heavily automated miniature fulfillment centers. Online grocery delivery and pickup services like Instacart and AmazonFresh, and upcoming offerings from companies like Walmart and Kroger, suggest the industry sees consumers moving away from pushing shopping carts through store aisles. Small, in-store warehouses could help speed that transition, Aguerrevere says.

“We believe that the industry is ripe for that disruption,” he says.