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Walmart’s supply chain VP Matt Kelly on why the retailer is bringing in robots

As part of its modernization plan, Walmart Canada is rolling out material-handling robotics and automation technologies
4/18/2024
Matt Kelly
Matt Kelly

The robots have arrived (behind the scenes) at Walmart Canada. In what the retailer calls a “high-tech makeover” for its supply chain, Walmart has introduced autonomous mobile robots and automation technologies at its regional distribution centre in Calgary. The technology, which includes self-driving mobile robots, robotic arms and automated labelling, is meant to take the heavy lifting away from employees and ensure a greater degree of shipping accuracy. 

Matt Kelly, VP of supply chain at Walmart Canada, talked to Canadian Grocer about the technology’s benefits – and one big challenge – as well as what’s next for the retailer. 

Can you take us through the automation technology – what it is and how it works?

We broadly lump how we look at technology into two buckets. We have greenfield, which might be new buildings or new sites, such as our new Calgary FC [fulfillment centre] that we [announced] last year. And then we have brownfield and that is where we retrofit technology into an existing operation. So, this is an example of brownfield technology for us. We’re bringing this level of technology into the facility to improve the operation and aid our associates in how they move freight. 

The pallets are moved [by autonomous mobile robots] from the docks to the robotics arms. The robotic arms will move the heavier freight onto the conveyor belts, and they’re then put through an automated [shipping] label print-and-apply piece of technology. So that process… takes that heavy freight moving away from our associates. From a safety perspective and ergonomics ways of working perspective, it allows our associates to focus more on the critical thinking and problem solving and takes the heavy freight moving away. 

What are some other benefits to employees as well as to customers? 

The technology augments our associates’ strengths… So again, where there are more manual and heavy-lifting elements, we can take that away from our associates and allow them to focus much more on problem solving and critical thinking. Any supply chain will still have problems, issues and delays that crop up on a very tactical level, day-to-day, that need to be solved. So, we’re finding that allowing our associates to concentrate on those problems and moving the heavy freight into automation is a real benefit. 

 

There’s a safety perspective here as well. We at Walmart feel every associate who works in our supply chain has the right to go home without any injury. So, this plays into that as well, in that lost time through safety issues or injuries is reduced from introducing this level of technology. 

And then thirdly… using automation in this way brings us a higher level of quality in what those outbound shipments look like to stores. So, we’re benefiting customers by a higher threshold on that quality aspect to enable right cases, right store, right time, right quantity. Automation really helps us in that respect as well. 

Does [this automation] reduce the workforce that would be on the floor doing those manual, labour-intensive jobs? 

No, it doesn’t. We view it very much as augmenting the workforce... The calculations will not stack up to it being a one-to-one – put a robot in, remove people from the floor. It really doesn’t work like that… People’s roles are changing, but those roles are not going away. There are more roles being introduced looking after the automation and working with the automation. So, in that respect, it’s not a net-neutral game. 

READ: Walmart Canada says robots are coming to two Ontario warehouses, but jobs not at risk

What was the biggest challenge in the development and implementation of the technology in the pilot facility?

The challenge is firstly, we always consider safety. We work extensively with our internal safety team to ensure that any technology we’re putting into sites, we can operate it safely… We want to make sure that where our associates come into contact with the technology, they do so in a safe manner… We’re very fortunate in that we have partners within our compliance team at Walmart Canada that focus solely on technology like this – automation and robotics – and how it interacts with our associates. We overcame that by extensive pilots, working with teams in other markets such as the U.S… to understand their learnings, and then going through a graduated buildup with pilots in place and feedback from associates and leaders in the warehouses so that we could [implement] this technology in a graduated manner. So [safety] was the number-one concern. 

walmart calgary DC automation robotics
Automation tech at Walmart's regional distribution centre in Calgary.

What’s next in terms of rollout across your [two] other distribution centres or other supply chain automation initiatives? 

It’s worth mentioning that it’s a marathon, not a sprint for us. This is a journey we’re on. We will be looking to reshape our supply chain and modernize it wherever we can. We have teams that are focused solely on opportunities within the operation of where technology is best applied – not always just hardware and software as well. And that’s happening constantly behind the scenes. So, we’ll be very excited to share with you our next rollout when it happens. 

READ: Walmart Canada reveals new tech-focused flagship store

Can you share your prediction on what’s next for automation and robotics in the grocery space?

I think where it’s all heading is very much around omnichannel fulfillment… We have automation in our sites serving stores, so moving cases and pallets. We also have automation in our fulfillment centres serving direct-to-customer for e-commerce’s final mile… So, the Holy Grail is bringing that all together and then orchestrating omnichannel fulfillment with the use of automation and AI on the software side. I think that is what a lot of people are shooting for. We’re not there yet, but it’s obviously getting closer with every installation we make. 

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