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Customer Service and Circuits: Walmart, McDonalds and the Emerging Robotic Labor Force

robotic workforce, robot in an apron

Robots used to be something present in science fiction movies and fantasy novels. But not anymore. A robotic workforce has already replaced more than 80 percent of the manufacturing sector. And other sectors are following suit. Some of the largest companies in the retail and food industries are ramping up their robotic automation tremendously. So what will this mean for consumers, as well as employees, in the future?

Robotic automation offers many advantages, but it also introduces change. While there are several benefits to a robotic workforce, there is also the costs to appreciate. While convenience, efficiency and even safety may be enhanced, that doesn’t mean new challenges will not be encountered. Customers and workers alike need to prepare for these challenges as it appears that a robotic workforce is inevitable.

The Upside of a Robotic Workforce

As the manufacturing sector has realized, robotic automation has its advantages. For one, it reduces throughput delays and boosts the number of manufacturing cycles per period. At the same time, robotic automation reduces errors, improves quality control, and offers greater workplace safety. All of these benefits mean greater efficiency, as well as increased profits. So, it’s no wonder other sectors are exploring a robotic workforce to gain marketplace advantages.

Of course, these are not the only benefits. Today, several tedious, repetitive, low-level tasks are still being performed by workers in various industries. A robotic workforce provides an opportunity for workers to avoid having to perform such menial activities. Instead, employees enjoy a chance to realize their full potential through new skill development and creative innovations. From this perspective, robotic automation ultimately creates better value for everyone—for both the company and its workers.

Potential Downsides of Robotic Automation

Naturally, concerns about job displacement exist whenever a robotic workforce is mentioned. Currently, 3.8 million people in the U.S. work in the fast food industry. Fast food kiosks, mobile ordering apps, and curbside pickup all threaten existing positions at these restaurants. McDonald’s is a prime example of this case as with all its stores are to have these applications by 2020. At the same time, robotic workforces pose threats to other fast food jobs. Flippy, a burger-flipping robot that flips 150 burgers an hour, has been employed in select California fast food restaurants. Job displacement in some positions, thus, seems likely—requiring workers to develop new skills for new jobs.

The Robotic Workforce - Walmart and Mcdo's Robotic Labor Force Infographics

Estimates suggest that more than half the current workforce will be replaced by robotic automation by 2030. With robots like Flippy, which only cost $60,000, companies enjoy a robotic workforce that is more productive at menial tasks. Likewise, Flippy never calls in sick or takes vacations while providing years of service for its price. It’s not surprising why a number of companies are embracing such robotic technology for food.

Bold Companies Embracing Robotic Automation Innovations

Several companies today are making robotic automation a priority for change. Walmart is among one of the leaders in adopting a robotic workforce. The company is currently implementing nearly 4,000 robotic automation units that serve a variety of functions. These include a robotic workforce that cleans floors, manages inventory, scans, and sorts deliveries, and facilitates online order pickups. Through these innovations, Walmart expects tremendous improvements in efficiency, productivity, and service.

Walmart is certainly not alone. Target, since 2016, has used Tally—which is a robotic inventory tracker. Similarly, Lowe’s brought in LoweBot in 2016 to assist customers with in-store directions while also tracking inventory. And several hotels chains are adopting robotic automation in the form of kiosks and customer services. Some hotels, like the Residence Inn by Marriott, are beginning to use a robotic workforce for bellhop services. Improvements in automated transportation and AI have enabled these innovations to become realities.

The Good and Bad for Consumers

Naturally, the state of robotic automation today does not provide the same level of service as their human counterparts. As bellhops, baristas and restaurant servers are increasingly replaced by a robotic workforce, some of these nuances will be lost. Likewise, robotic automation inherently shifts some of the responsibility to the consumer. You only have to walk into any large retailer today to appreciate this. Kiosks now require consumers to scan and interact with these devices rather than being served by an employee.

While the corresponding ramifications might not be desirable for some customers, opportunities for better efficiency and accuracy are attractive with robotic automation. Likewise, continued advances in artificial intelligence, machine learning, and automated movements will continue to allow improvements in service. And the opportunities that a robotic workforce allows in data analytics cannot be understated. All of this ultimately means enhanced products and services tailored to individual customers. This is the promise of the Fourth Industrial Revolution, and a robotic workforce certainly offers this potential.

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