The Droids You’re Looking For

The Droids You’re Looking For

Walmart plans to deploy almost 400 robotic cleaners  

By: Sheryl S. Jackson

 

Emma is not your typical Walmart associate. This member of the cleaning team for a Rogers, Arkansas, store proudly wears a Walmart name badge and works steadily throughout the shift keeping the floors clean with no break as “she” makes customers and other associates smile.

The only thing Emma requires is another associate to confirm the route to take while scrubbing the floors and normal maintenance required for most floor scrubbers. Maintenance, you ask? That’s right— Emma is a robotic floor scrubber.

“We are testing autonomous cleaners in 84 of our 4,700 stores and plan to have them in 360 of our stores by the end of January 2019,” said Ragan Dickens, Director of Corporate Communications, at Walmart. One benefit of adding the robotic floor scrubber to a cleaning crew is a cleaner store because the associates can focus on tasks other than floors. 

Moving an associate off a traditional ride-on or walk-behind floor cleaner also increases engagement with customers, Dickens explained. “Customers are less likely to approach associates for help if they think they are taking the person away from their job,” he said. Although customers will approach someone dusting or straightening up an area, they won’t ask someone to shut off and get down from a machine. 

Rise of the Robots

The move to robotic cleaners is an emerging trend in retail, said Joe Mann, Global Vice President, General Manager of Robotics at TASKI Intellibot, a PRSM supplier. While Intellibot does not provide the Walmart robots, it does sell robotic cleaners to retailers around the globe. A key benefit of robotic cleaners is the current labor market, Mann pointed out. “Retailers, as well as other industries, struggle to hire and retain janitors,” he said. 

Mann added that robotic cleaners should not be viewed as a labor cost-savings measure, but instead as a labor re-allocation strategy. “Cleaning crews are already understaffed in many places; in fact, one educational institution representative told me it is not uncommon for only 45 to 48 of the 65-person janitorial staff to show up to work on any day,” he said. “The robot guarantees the floors will be cleaned during the shift, allowing employees to handle basic tasks, such as trash pickup and bathroom cleanings, and have time to handle other tasks that don’t get done on a regular basis—for example, ledge cleaning or cleaning the kitchen area of the employee lounge.” 

Another benefit is a cleaner floor, Mann said. “Robots don’t get tired because this is not a second job for them—their productivity rates are high, and they clean consistently,” he said. Cleaner floors and stores translate to improved customer satisfaction and better image for the store. Not only does the store appear cleaner, but deployment of robots enhances the retailer’s image as a technologically savvy, forward-thinking organization, he added. 

Easy-to-operate robots have maps of the store that employees can use to set the robot’s path for the shift. The robot follows the path unless it “sees” an obstacle, such as shoppers, pallets or other items. At the end of the shift, data on areas cleaned—as well as those missed due to obstacles that caused the robot to move to the next aisle—is recorded so the next shift knows which areas need attention. 

Determining ROI

Although robotic cleaners can adapt to any floor layout, Mann said that some retailers must change some work processes to optimize the robot’s capabilities. For example, janitorial crews must be able to move displays to give the cleaner access to areas, and restocking associates need to coordinate with the janitorial crew to be sure they work in one area while the robot cleans the other areas. “This can simply be a case of starting the robot at one end of the store, then having it go back to beginning—following behind employees as they restock,” he said. 

Most retail operations—front of store as well as back of house operations—can handle a robotic cleaner, Mann said. Some exceptions might be stores with a small footprint or narrow aisles that cannot handle a robot that is 24 to 30 inches wide, he explained. “You want a return on investment of one to two years, which is reasonable for any big box store of 62,000 to 100,000 square feet,” he said. Determining ROI can be as simple as assessing how much is paid to a janitor working one six-hour shift, five nights a week, 52 weeks a year. “Depending on the wage rate for your area, along with cost of benefits, the robot can pay for itself in one year,” he added.

Mann’s company has seen a steadily increasing interest in testing or deploying robotic cleaners during the past three years. “Requests for trials have doubled every year for three years,” he said. “Retailers who are not evaluating this technology today are already behind their competitors.”

How do customers and associates view the robots? At Walmart, Emma and her peers in other stores get lots of attention as children wave to them and on Walmart’s social media forums. 

“Whenever we show photos of the robots in a store, our associates chime in and ask when they get to work with one! Dickens said. 

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Published: January 31, 2019