Robots are efficient and a spectacle


At the H-E-B grocery store in Texas, shoppers don’t only encounter friendly staff and aisles stocked with the best organic produce, they also enjoy the futuristic spectacle of robots fulfilling their orders on site.

At the centre of the shop stands an 8,000-square-metre automated storage and retrieval system (ASRS), installed by the Norwegian firm AutoStore. Inside, robots zip around a grid system, collecting groceries from ceiling-high stacks of bins and bringing them down to staff who pack them for delivery or collection.

Not only is it a site to behold, the storage facility also allows H-E-B to keep much larger volumes of inventory on site, widening the range of goods it can offer. It also makes it easier to fulfil large numbers of online orders locally from the shop, rather than having to rely on a warehouse miles away, which reduces courier costs and cuts pollution.

In another retail installation, at the eXXpozed sports store in the Allgäu region of Germany, AutoStore’s ASRS frees up floor space which has been put to other uses.

The retailer can now hold immersive events and workshops in the shop, and customers can even try the latest sports equipment, then check stock availability and place orders on touch-screens in store.

Inventory is stacked high in bins in an aluminium cubic grid that can be formed in any shape and around obstacles

This is not brand-new technology; AutoStore’s patented and proven systems have been developed over the last 25 years and are now used all over the world. AutoStore began life when the firm, formerly an electronic components distributor, was looking for a way of avoiding having to procure more warehouse space.

In the end it developed its own automated storage and retrieval system, inspired by the Rubik’s cube, to maximise the space it had.

Inventory is stacked high in bins in an aluminium cubic grid that can be formed in any shape and around obstacles. High-speed robots work all day, shuffling the bins and delivering orders to the workstations on the grid-edges, where humans pick or replenish the inventory.

The system, which is simple to programme, quadruples a retailer’s storage capacity while reducing the labour required for manual fulfilment.

Redefining retail

AutoStore’s systems have been used chiefly to optimise warehouse or back-of-shop storage space. More than 500 ASRSs have been installed worldwide for clients as diverse as UK grocer Asda, US consumer electronics chain Best Buy and medical supplies giant Medline Industries.

But more recently AutoStore has expanded to offer storage solutions that also form an integral part of the retail experience.

Driving this is the realisation that retail has been fundamentally transformed as more people shop online, leaving high streets under pressure to reinvent themselves.

Shops must now be experiential, not just utilitarian, to woo consumers back. And in this new environment, turning shops into places that can engage, and therefore retain, customers is crucial.

Installing an ASRS inside a store helps achieve this. Not only is it a talking point, it also allows retailers to get rid of aisles and offer richer in-store experiences. Just look at the way brands such as Apple and Lululemon continue to attract consumers to their shops by turning them into hubs of education and entertainment.

AutoStore’s systems boost convenience too, enabling retailers to consolidate orders in less than ten minutes and fulfil them that day, giving local customers more choice and flexibility.

The business case is clear: as the cost of last-mile deliveries continues to rise, companies are finding it harder to meet the demands of customers and survive on lower margins.

But installing an AutoStore enables retailers to stay close to their customers and run an efficient ecommerce fulfilment centre alongside a more customer-centric store.

It also allows them to burnish their green credentials. Not only do locally sourced deliveries generate less carbon emissions, but ten AutoStore robots use only the same amount of energy as a vacuum cleaner.

In short, installing an AutoStore gives retailers vastly more storage capacity in the same footprint as manual storage. And with substantial space-savings, comes a range of new creative possibilities.

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