Business

Walmart's robot raises questions for workers

Store's goal is to replenish shelves

The new automated floor scrubbers at Walmart are kind of like a giant Roomba, replacing the manual push versions seen to the right. They roam the store autonomously, stopping and steering around customers. The upgrades are part of a $36 million investment in new technologies and upgrades to Walmarts in Washington state. (Bettina Hansen / The Seattle Times/TNS)
The new automated floor scrubbers at Walmart are kind of like a giant Roomba, replacing the manual push versions seen to the right. They roam the store autonomously, stopping and steering around customers. The upgrades are part of a $36 million investment in new technologies and upgrades to Walmarts in Washington state. (Bettina Hansen / The Seattle Times/TNS)
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BONNEY LAKE, Wash. — When an autonomous floor scrubber was rolled out in Walmart’s Bonney Lake, Wash., store last month, shoppers mistook the teal-blue scrubber zipping down the aisles for a runaway machine, said manager David Klein.

“Some customers are a little freaked out,” he admitted.

Klein said the Auto-C robot has relieved his employees of several hours of cleaning every evening, and has allowed him to avoid hiring another maintenance worker on the previously understaffed team.

The four-foot-tall scrubber, which resembles a riding lawn mower but is considerably quieter, uses sensors to scan its environment and to avoid people or objects in its way.

The San Diego-based tech company that makes the Auto-C robot, called Brain Corp, also provides the software that powers autonomous floor cleaners at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport.

At Walmart, the automated machines are just part of a push to bring this pioneer of big-box discounting into the future of brick-and-mortar retail, with implications for its workforce that are still unknown.

Last month the retail giant said it planned to spend $36 million on the remodeling of seven Washington stores, as well as the deployment of autonomous floor scrubbers, dozens of FAST unloaders akin to smart conveyor belts, and 16-foot-tall vending machines called pickup towers that dispense products ordered online.

Rivals such as Kroger and Seattle-based Amazon.com — which acquired Whole Foods in 2017 and launched a still-small chain of cashierless convenience stores called Amazon Go — have pushed Walmart to compete for customers by rolling out automated technology that offers convenience while keeping prices low.

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Meanwhile, the low unemployment rate and low corporate tax rate has spurred it to raise wages, increasing the allure of automation.

Artificial intelligence technology also allows the machine to map the layout of the store during a training ride and to continuously adapt to its surroundings, according to Brain Corp.

But the machine occasionally needs help from humans, so it has a seat that is cordoned off by yellow straps in case the robot runs into an obstacle it can’t outmaneuver and a Walmart worker needs to put it into manual mode.

Despite the new unloading technology, the Bonney Lake location actually has added 200 additional hours to the afternoon and evening stocking team shift since January as the company pivots toward constantly replenishing the shelves, Klein said.

Employees previously struggled to restock the depleted shelves during the day.

But it actually takes employees longer to unpack the trucks with the automated machine than it did during the days of manual unloading, he admitted.

“The goal of this is not to unload faster,” Klein said as a case of popcorn whirled past on the conveyor belt. It’s “to get product to the floor faster.”

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