Moveable Robotic Platform Could Be the Future of Retail

Research led by RPI proposes a shift in the customer shopping experience

Shifting customer shopping habits, exacerbated by the recent pandemic, have forced retailers to reimagine the way goods and services are handled. “Omni-channel services” — such as buy online and pickup in store, in-store returns, ship from store, and home delivery — have shifted the in-store logistics once done by shoppers to retailers. To share inventory and material handling equipment among online and in-store customers, researchers led by Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI) are proposing to design suburban omni-channel facilities and modular and robotic platforms that support their operation.

“Omni-Channel Facilities Supported by Modular and Moveable Robotic Platforms” is supported by a $497,610 grant from the Raymond Corporation.

Retail and distribution operations are undergoing a vast transformation, thanks to the rapid proliferation of e-commerce, changing consumer shopping behaviors, and expectations for speed and product variety. These trends have been accelerated due to the COVID-19 pandemic, where 40% of Americans tried a new shopping method. This translated into 31% of U.S. households using an online grocery delivery or pickup service in a given month in 2020, a year-over-year increase of 193%

As the nation's largest private-sector employer, retailers contribute $3.9 trillion to the annual GDP. This research focuses on suburban retail stores that provide both an in-person shopping experience and online services. These stores offer a wide assortment of products, and have space to accommodate an extended backroom, dock doors, and tractor trailer access.

“From a logistics point of view, we are already seeing a fundamental change in customer-store interactions,” said Jennifer Pazour, associate professor of industrial and systems engineering and the project’s principal investigator. “Previously, customers completed the picking process by themselves and the main logistical task of a store was replenishing store shelves.”

Pazour’s team is collaborating with the Institute for Material Handling and Logistics at Karlsruhe Institute of Technology, a group led by Professor Kai Furmans.

The team’s vision is that retail stores will not go away, but they will also not look or operate like the ones we shop at today. Instead, they will be transformed, designed explicitly so that inventory, labor, material handling equipment, and infrastructure can be shared to fulfill multiple customer needs.

The team will design, build and lab-demonstrate a prototype modular and moveable robotic platform that uses a robotic arm to automate several relevant pick, sort, and place actions in the proposed omni-channel facility. The modular platform is designed to be changeable for different in-store use cases and to be transported using forklift trucks or automated guided vehicles. The team will also build a more holistic simulation model of the proposed omni-channel facility to economically evaluate the team’s facility and material handling equipment designs.

“Customers, you and I, want omni-channel services, but the reality is that many companies are struggling to offer such services,” Pazour said. “This research provides innovation into new facility and material handling equipment designs so that omni-channel services can thrive.”