Walmart has been testing autonomous floor-cleaning robots in five of its stores, LinkedIn reports.
Testing autonomous robots scrubbers during overnight shifts is a move that could free workers from hours of tiring monotonous work, but that has already raised alarm among some employees.
The Brain Corp. device used at Walmart is named EMMA: Enabling Mobile Machine Automation. Phil Duffy, the vice president of innovation for Brain Corp., wouldn’t comment on whether the Walmart machine was made by his company, but explained that EMMA is meant not as a replacement for humans but as a way to address challenges in the labor market.
Many companies struggle with high turnover and difficulties in hiring maintenance and janitorial staff to work third-shift positions. At retailers, typically only 20 percent of an overnight employee’s job is dedicated to floor cleaning, Duffy said, meaning the worker could also easily be repurposed elsewhere. The intention is to automate tasks that are “repeatable, predictable and manual,” giving its people more time to focus on higher-value work like customer service and selling. Working with the robot also introduces hourly staffers to autonomous technology; they’re no longer riding a scrubber, they’re helping direct it, which could help employees gain new skills.
“Retailers are looking for opportunities to automate processes and stop paying people,” said Richard A. Feinberg, a professor of consumer sciences and retailing at Purdue University, who predicts automation will ripple through the retail industry over the coming years, touching everyone from delivery people to cashiers. He said Walmart deserves credit for being willing to test and learn from new technology and added it’s unclear if its experiment with the robotic cleaning machinery would ultimately cost jobs or affect workers’ hours.
EMMA, with its top speed of 2.5 miles per hour in autonomous mode, slinks through stores. The machine comes equipped with similar technology used in self-driving cars: extensive cameras, sensors, algorithms for navigational mapping. A human must first drive the device to train it on a path; it can then operate largely independently, including when a store is open to customers. If a person or object gets in its way, it momentarily pauses and adjusts course. Should it become trapped in an aisle, unable to exit on either end, it sends a distress signal, texting a photo of what its cameras see so a store employee — a human — can rescue it.
Some Walmart employees see EMMA as more interloper than friend, at least for now. They say the device didn’t get close enough to the edges of some walls or could not fit in some spaces. "Nobody in my store likes it," one employee wrote in a private Facebook group, suggesting the machine could lead to less work for overnight staffers. Duffy said that “99 percent of the time, the reactions are phenomenal” and that employees want to focus their attention elsewhere. “They don’t want to be scrubbing the floor,” he said. “Floor care is dull and monotonous.”