An Israeli firm deploys robots to speed up online shopping

Behind a dark, opaque facade in Tel Aviv, an Israeli company is speeding up online shopping by replacing staff moving around small warehouses with robots.

Whirling along a rail between two long shelves packed with coffee capsules, a robot stopped, pivoting to the right, flashing a light before grabbing an object and dropping it into a paper bag.

“Shoppers want to get their items faster and faster,” said Eyal Yair, co-founder and CEO of 1MRobotics, which built the automated warehouse late last year.

“If once you were looking at a two-day delivery, which then became a one-day delivery and then two hours, now we are looking at 10 minutes,” he said.

The robot operates in the 30 square meter (320 square foot) space custom-made to store the capsules, and is equipped with a street-side outlet for couriers and shoppers to collect online orders.

The robot receives the orders, packs and prepares them, and humans only need to restock the warehouse and send deliveries.

While robots are used to pack groceries in major supermarkets around the world, Yair said 1MRobotics stores “pioneer” them.

“We hardly see any players talking about small stores, a few dozen square meters,” he told AFP.

– ‘No sense’ in supermarkets –

Yair argued that a fast, centrally located operation run by human staff rather than robots is financially viable for small businesses dealing with a small number of orders.

But “once you start scaling up and dealing with multiple orders a day, you need a lot of people,” he said. “Then it becomes less economical.”

The Covid-19 pandemic has energized the already rapidly developing e-commerce market, with sellers struggling to meet the growing demand for fast processing and deliveries.

The solution requires “small stores, very close to the clients, and at the end of the day, these small stores must be automated”, said Yair.

In the south Tel Aviv headquarters of 1MRobotics, young men and women — almost all of them graduates of the Israeli army’s robotics and technology units — were customizing robots off the shelf.

Together with artificial intelligence, these robots are designed to understand and carefully pack fruits and vegetables, as well as frozen items thanks to a method that prevents the robots’ oil from freezing.

The company also builds the containers that will be the mini stores, with Yair saying that their robots and storage units would soon be working with an alcohol store in Brazil, mini markets in Germany and a mobile phone company in South Africa.

In his view, it’s only a matter of time before “hyperlocal logistics infrastructure” like his robotic warehouses make supermarkets redundant.

“When you have a service where you know you can order 10 items several times a day and get them within 10 minutes, there will be no reason to shop once a week all week,” he said.

“It just doesn’t make sense.”


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