The Shifting Nature of Big Retail’s Investment in Robotics

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Many large retail companies have sought out logistic streamlining opportunities through robotics. CEO and founder of Vecna Robotics Daniel Theobald speaks with Forbes on this emerging trend.

Forbes – Tom Taulli – Walmart has been investing heavily in robots, such as for cleaning floors. But the company’s efforts have not been without their challenges.

“Workers can perform a multitude of different tasks,” said Meghan Huber, who is an Assistant Professor in Mechanical and Industrial Engineering and Director of the Human-Robot Systems Laboratory at UMass Amherst. “They can move from the cash register to the stockroom to the sales floor as needed. The functionality of most commercial robots, however, is limited and inflexible. In Walmart’s case, a human worker can check shelf inventory levels and help a customer find an item, whereas the robot could only do the former.”

Even though robots have been shown to be useful for commercial purposes since the 1960s, the focus has generally been on the factory floors for automakers. There has also been lots of traction for ecommerce warehouses during the past decade.

vecna robotics daniel theobald

Daniel Theobald, CEO & Founder of Vecna Robotics

But the use of robots for other applications and industries has proven more difficult.

“In many ways, robots are the most difficult thing the human race has ever done,” said Daniel Theobald, who is the founder and CEO of Vecna Robotics. “Learning is a process of determining what is hard versus what is easy given a new tool, and you often don’t learn that until you try. Adoption will occur in the places that robots provide the most value—and in other cases, it may take longer. Take for instance, the self-driving car market. Many people predicted massive adoption of self-driving cars by now. However, that industry has been learning that it’s cost prohibitive to do that job safely compared to human drivers. There will be specific instances where on-highway self-driving technology makes sense–that is, trucking—but maybe not so much for other things like self-driving taxis in the short term.”

Read more on retail investment in robotics and the challenges of adopting new technologies in the full article here.

Read more about the robotics industry here.