Walmart showcases robots, drones, AI chatbots during shareholder week

by Kim Souza ([email protected]) 1,265 views 

A robot makes hamburgers at Sam’s Club. Robots retrieve items for order fulfillment in Bentonville. AI chatbots help Walmart merchants. Drones make deliveries in Northwest Arkansas. Highlighting such technology was part of Walmart’s annual shareholders’ week.

Walmart opened up its market fulfillment center (MFC) at Store 100 in Bentonville to the media to demonstrate how proprietary Alphabots work on a trolley-like system moving about a large, vertical storage tower. The center has been open for about three months and continues to build capacity. The unit was designed so that bots carrying the grocery bins are the only moving part of the operation.

Workers load products into the towers and enter expiration dates and other product information into a computer terminal. The vertical tower can hold thousands of items the Alphabot retrieves and brings to the order stager. The center operates with three temperature zones, ambient, chilled and frozen. When an order is placed, the bots move about the tower retrieving order items and delivering them to stagers who pack the orders and store them for pickup.

Walmart said the goal of the MFC is to relieve pressure on stores by adding more capacity for online ordering. There are still personal shoppers picking some of the items from the store, such as fresh fruits and vegetables. Those items are added to the order in the large staging area of the MFC and stored until the customer arrives for pickup or it is dispatched for delivery. Walmart said it continues to test and learn, and the goal at some point is to allow the MFC to fill orders from more than one store.

Just outside the MFC, DroneUp operates a delivery system and has for about a year. The drone is limited to a 10-pound weight limit and about 1-mile radius from the store. Walmart said there is a $3.99 fee for drone delivery. Consumers have to use the DroneUp app to get an order delivered, and the option is not available on Walmart is also testing DroneUp delivery in Farmington and Rogers and a separate Zipline drone delivery option in Pea Ridge.

Anshu Bhardwaj, senior vice president of Walmart Global Tech, said the company is innovating with generative artificial intelligence (Gen AI) to enhance operations and the shopping experience. Walmart has been using Gen AI for the past couple of years. Applications for Gen AI include shopping assistants such as text-to-shop, voice shopping and decision assistant available in the Walmart app.

Bhardwaj said the basic building block known as the Converse platform is the same technology as ChatGPT. She said Walmart’s Converse platform enables 22 conversational AI use cases. Some of those uses include the Ask Sam app, employees have to access operational help in stores and clubs as well as the Spark Shopper-mile delivery platform.

A new application is known as Ask Claude, inspired by the late Claude Harris, who was the first buyer for Walmart. Merchant buyers can access help from the Ask Claude app to automate repetitive tasks, conduct research to find a resolution to an issue or serve as experts on merchandising fundamentals. Bhardwaj said the application helps augment the efficiency of merchant buyer teams so they have more time to interact with suppliers on innovative products.

Sam’s Club is testing a robot that makes hamburgers in its Fayetteville location. The warehouse club said they also have one in the home office cafeteria in Bentonville. The technology was developed by Studio 35, a small in-house tech workshop at Sam’s Club. Tim Simmons, chief product officer at Sam’s Club, said there are already additional uses for the technology developed for the robot being deployed in club operations.