By Scott Simmie
InDro Robotics just took in NRF 2024 in New York. And it was, as the National Retail Federation promised, “Retail’s Big Show.”
Many of the world’s largest retailers (along with plenty of smaller ones) were at the event, which is one of the biggest and most important conferences for the retail sector on the planet.
And while many of us might think of retail and its supply chain as consisting of storefronts, warehouses, manufacturing and the transport of goods, there’s a tremendous amount of technology going on behind the scenes. The use of that technology – including various forms of automation and robotics – is growing. That’s why we attended.
“I was here on behalf of InDro to identify in the retail space where the gaps are, and where hardware fits into that – how physical robots can complement some of the solutions that are offered,” explains Stacey Connors, Head of Strategic Innovations (and the happy person pictured above).
Here’s a quick overview of the event:
THE BIG SHOW
It really is a big show. Some 6,000 retailers from around the world take part, with more than 1,000 companies exhibiting. About 35,000 people attended the event, which this year had a heavy focus on technologies that can offer new efficiencies through every step of the retail process: Manufacturing, supply chain management, inventory control – you name it.
Most retailers, says Connors, rely heavily on software throughout that process. Highly automated systems like Amazon distribution centres are known as “dark warehouses” – because you could simply turn the lights off and most of the processes would keep on running.
For an example of just how automated some systems are, check out the video below. This system was built more than five years ago:
THAT’S THE EXCEPTION
Pretty impressive system, right? But that’s the exception.
“The reality – and what a lot of publications like McKinsey will justify – is that 80+ per cent of the warehouses are ‘brown fields’ where there’s limited automation at all,” says Connors.
Making that transition toward more automation isn’t always a snap.
“You’re asking an existing environment to upgrade everything, change all the infrastructure. Is the width of the aisles suitable for multiple robots? Is the lighting adequate for scanning barcodes or QR codes? Is the software built to integrate with different autonomous devices?”
There are companies that are specializing, at least on the software side, in helping with that transition. SVT Robotics, for example, makes software (SoftBot) for the integration of autonomous machines with existing inventory management/supply chain software. Depending on warehouse architecture, robots can sometimes be added with minimal infrastructure changes.
And then there are manufacturers and retailers building new “green field” warehouses – where they design a new facility from the ground up that takes existing robotics technologies into account.
“When you’re building a whole new warehouse, all of these automations are very viable,” says Connors.
INDRO AND INVENTORY
This isn’t the first piece of the puzzle that Connors has been examining in the retail supply chain world. She’s been immersed in this sector for much of the past year, taking in major conferences like Promat, the world’s largest gathering focussed on supply chain automation. She attended Boston’s Robotics Summit & Expo as well as IROS in Detroit. Synergically, they help form a Big Picture. Connors says the NRF retail show filled in an important gap.
“This is the other piece – how it impacts the front end, the end sale, and revenue generation. So it was a different lens to look at how robotics impacts the whole chain.”
But why so much interest in this?
We’ll have much more to say on this soon. But InDro has been hard at work on a new solution we believe will offer huge efficiencies for companies with large warehouses – and even for front-end retail operations. It is a radically new kind of solution, and we can’t wait to share it.
What we can tell you is that InDro is excited to have forged a partnership with Scanbot – a leader in barcode scanning and data capture. Scanbot’s SDK (Software Development Kit) will play an important role in our new product, and we’re pleased to be on board with them.
“The success of our new venture hinges on seamless integration with existing software and operating systems,” says Connors.
“Scanbot is the clear leader in this field, and offers precisely the SDK for the job. We’re excited to be working with them.”
Below: Stacey Connors and our new Scanbot partners during the NRF show
As you know by now, InDro is an R&D company. Frequently, clients come to us seeking solutions that don’t yet exist. And often, we identify problems in need of solutions. In both cases, we invent/develop new products. We are particularly inclined to develop and refine new products when we see a significant void in the marketplace.
“Inventory management is a huge untapped market,” says Stacey Connors. “Robotics and automation can offer massive efficiencies, particularly if they can be integrated into existing warehouses and showrooms without significant infrastructure changes.
“This is an area where we have been deeply focused on a solution – one we look forward to unveiling in the very near future. Trust me, there’s nothing like it out there.”