Ask someone who runs a fulfillment/warehouse robotics company, what is the companies top motivation for adopting automation and they will probably cite labor shortages or shipping speeds. The emerging truth of the matter boils down to one word: Amazon. And while it’s true that small businesses are feeling the worst of the crisis, no one is safe from the dominance of an online retailer. Not even Walmart.
Today, fellow retail giant announced its latest robotics partnership in collaboration with Massachusetts-based automation company Symbiotic. The two today announced the expansion of their relationship that will bring Robotics to 25 regional Walmart distribution centers. The company says the rollout will take “several years” to complete.
The deal follows a 2017 pilot that brought Symbiotic’s autonomous robotics platform to Walmart’s Brooksville, Florida distribution center to enhance freight sorting, stocking and unloading.
“The digital transformation taking place today, coupled with increasing customer habits, is reshaping the retail industry,” said Walmart’s Joe Metzger in a release. “To serve customers now and in the future, our business must provide our associates with the right tools and training to deliver the items our customers want, when they want them, with unmatched convenience. We are investing in our supply chain on an unprecedented scale to optimize that process end-to-end.”
Walmart has been aggressive about running robots over the past several years, hoping to speed up some of its processes. As we have seen earlier, however, its results have so far been uneven. The most notable case is that of Bossa Nova Robotics. The startup was thrown for a loop when Walmart terminated its contract with the inventory robotics maker. That’s it for pilots, but that likely doesn’t lessen the sting for the smaller company.
However, Symbiotic’s track record is quite strong. The company lists one of Walmart’s biggest competitors among its partners: Target. And while Walmart is exploring the possibility of acquiring its own startup (a la Amazon, which built its robotics wing on top of its acquisition of Kiva Systems), it looks like the current relationship could make such a deal a major hurdle. Huh.