Robotics & Autonomous Solutions in Customer Facing Environment

Autonomous & Robotic solutions have been making human’s lives easier since a better part of the 20th century

Industrial Robotics are the mainstay of Manufacturing, Logistics, Supply Chain & Warehousing industries who depend on their high precision, low error margins, cost effective alternative & ‘tireless’ operation relative to their human counterparts

Adding to the long list of benefits are robots don’t form unions, are easily transportable across the borders at a moment’s notice and don’t go on strikes (Yet!)

Now, the largely back-end robots are making inroads into critical consumer facing industries of Retail, Service & Hospitality

Not only do these consumer facing Robots share the Autonomous nature of their back-end brethren, but are also becoming ‘aware’; largely due to advancement in technologies and the mountains of Big Data that form their machine & behavior learning components

3 Customer facing Autonomous & Robotic Solutions

1. Fast Food Industry

Exemplified by:
McDonald’s & Panera Bread

Robotic / Autonomous Tech:
Self-order & pay kiosks

What do they do?
Self-order kiosks
 allow customers to customize, order & pay for their meals

Benefits to Consumer:
of Quick Self Order, Meal Customizations, m-Payment & Pickup flexibility without human interaction

Benefits to the Restaurants:
Lower Cost solution without the complexities of human errors, shift management and pay stifles

Workforce Impact:
Mainly Low Income, Entry level Counter Servers

Current Deployment Trend:
Slow rollout through Europe, APAC, U.S

2. Electronic Specialty Retailer

Exemplified by:
Best Buy (Chloe) and Lowe’s Innovation Lab (OSHBot)

Robotic / Autonomous Tech:
Autonomous Seek & Retrieve Robotic module… it’s like a Vending Machine… on Machine Learning steroids

What do they do?
Robotic Arm / fully locomotive Robots that greets customers, takes request of products and either takes them to the right aisle or retrieves it for them. Also allows customers to pay for them and may have ‘Advertising Screen’ on them

Benefits to Consumer:
Convenience of Interactivity, Self Service, m-Payment and potential flexibility of shopping for selected products 24X7 @ brick & mortar outlet

Benefits to the Retailer:
Effective utilization of salesforce by mitigating highly repetitive & low cost transactions to an automated Robotic entity. Avoid complexities of seasonal & temporary workforce shift management and related costs. Increase in productivity (time & money) for repetitive & critical tasks

Workforce Impact:
Mainly Low-Mid income Shift workers / Sales Associates / Seasonal Workforce

Benefits to Workforce:
For some sales staff, Robotic Assistance in store would enable them to shift their focus towards high margin & complex products that could positively contribute to the bottom line & NPS (customer satisfaction)

Current Deployment Trend:
Trial phase with future deployment Globally

3. Hospitality Industry

Exemplified by:
Aloft Hotel (US.) and Henn-na Hotel (Japan)

Robotic / Autonomous Tech:
Robot Customer Service Desk, Bellboy & Room Service

What do they do?
Fully functional Robots that greets customers, assist with basic questions & checks-in transactions, take baggage up to the room and delivers Room Service at any time

Benefits to Consumer:
Consistent Service, No arguments, ‘talkbacks’ and importantly No Tips $$!!

Benefits to the Hotel Industry:
Lower cost 24X7 solution without the complexities of shift management, labor unions and seasonal ‘cost blowouts’

Workforce Impact:
Mainly Low Income Service Agents, Bellboys and Room Services personnel

Current Deployment Trend:
Existing & Trial rollouts Globally

Few Benefits of Robots & Autonomous Solutions

Robots work 24X7

  • No need for Ongoing Salary / Pay / Overtime
  • No need for Ancillary Benefits (Leave, Medical, etc.)
  • No Risk of voluntary Strikes / Shutdowns / Walkouts
  • Programmed to do as it is told without Arguments / Backlash
  • Higher Efficiency & Productivity in performing Repetitive Tasks
  • Higher Accuracy
  • Relatively Cost Effective
  • 24X7 – Robots can be programmed to map aisles / load products / learn customer behavior long after the store closes – Machine Learning

At Crossroads of replacing ‘Manpower’

Robots vs Human Tranformation

Aside from the mountains of benefits Autonomous solutions (Robots) bring to the industry & wider economy, many worry the effect it would have on the ‘delicate’ socio-economic fabric

This trend is worrisome for Emerged & Emerging economies alike where many of the jobs created in recent years were the risky ‘replaceable’, low paying, low-mid level service roles. General consensus is that as these entry level jobs are replaced by semi/autonomous robots, the macro-economic impact on the economy could be devastating at local & global levels

Further to that, recent studies predict that robots in general are very likely to take over a lot of the entry-mid level jobs

Depending on the research, anywhere between 30% to 60% of these low-mid level jobs are under threat from autonomous Robots powered by Big Data over next 25 years

Robots could effectively replace humans completely in some form or the other within the Retail & Service Industries (Casual Staff, Cashiers, Shelving staff, Salespeople, etc.) and Hospitality Industries (Bellboys, Receptionists, Cleaners, Room Service staff, etc.)

Additionally, the growing pressure (in US. particularly) for raising minimum wages by the very same entry-level workers is further making companies consider introducing lower cost Autonomous & Robotics in a bid to enhance Profit Margins

It is for this reason primarily, the private sector faces stiff opposition for mass deployment of Autonomous & Robotic solutions from Political Campaigners & Unions alike

But one cannot ignore the overall benefits that Robotics bring to the Businesses, Consumers served and the overall economy of the country

Referencing the Manufacturing industry; a research by Georg Graetz & Guy Michaels from the London School of Economics using a panel of industries from 17 countries from 1993-2007 across U.S. & Europe concluded that Industrial robots actually increased labor productivity, added value and contributed to overall economic growth

The research also stated that Industrial Robots had no significant effect on the overall employment; although there was some evidence that low-skilled and (to a lesser extent) middle-skilled workers were  impacted

Robots NOT an Overnight Solution

  • Even today, Robotic solutions are a complex investment

For reasons such as high R&D costs, complex maintenance programs, regular software updates & personnel safety; Robotic solutions can’t be effectively mass deployed overnight @ global scale

  • But instead they would be rolled out steadily to fit the Business’s Overall Strategy, Broader Digital Channel requirements (including IoT, Big Data), Scales of Economy and Local Laws
  • This should provide substantial time for industry players to redefine their overall work processes in the robot era
  • They could actively transition a segment of their workforce towards higher skilled, pay and complex ‘human’ roles, whilst relegating Robots to handle the mundane high transaction volume, low margin jobs
  • This would fit into the broader initiatives from both the Private & Govt. sectors to educate & train their overall workforce

Transition of Roles

  • Initially, humans tend to be concerned for their jobs when robotic labor is introduced to their workplace
  • Investment in Robotics & Autonomous systems actually proves to be an investment in the human workforce
  • Even as Robots enter ‘mainstream’ workforce, their roles would be limited to a fraction of the overall work processes, presenting a potential benefit for the human workforce growth; albeit in different roles
  • Humans could thus be moved to Supervisory & Complex roles where they no longer have to perform dangerous duties in harmful environment

In most cases, Robots would pick up the repetitive & physically demanding roles. Humans would design the processes, quality requirements & goals and can train & monitor the said Robots

Robot Human Relationship

  • For example: Assistance staff who previously greeted customers & loaded shelves with heavy products could perhaps become a part of the in-store Robotic maintenance staff or handle complex customer queries. Instead of the mundane retrieval of CDs/DVDs, staff members may be elevated to a new entry level role of Home Theatre Experience experts; perhaps even boosting their morale. In effect, today’s Higher grade roles become the Entry level roles for employees to transition into tomorrow

Some Humans may always want Human-interaction

For the foreseeable future, no matter how many Robots & Autonomous solutions are deployed, there will always existdemand for that ‘Human / Personable’ experience across industry verticals

This provides the Industry players to continue leveraging human workforce for the process; albeit in a Hybrid role or Part Time capacity

As for me; I look forward to the day when a T-800 Humanoid can bring me my espresso