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Is Walmart’s new robot army ready to replace workers?

How many times have you heard “The robots are coming!” from job analysts and pundits? Automation, or the replacement of human workers with robots, is no longer a far-off concept.

Today, many employees are already facing robot-related job cuts, with even more careers shifting toward automation in the near future. Walmart, the largest employer in the United States, is unveiling a radical new program for its stores featuring over 3,000 robot workers.

These robots are supposed to free up current employees from menial tasks, but how long will it be before these machines are doing more than just scanning and cleaning floors?

What robots are coming to Walmart?

After successful tests in the previous year, Walmart is doubling down on its automation efforts. It’s introducing an entire fleet of robot workers with a range of different responsibilities.

In a post on the company’s blog, Walmart announced that it was bringing 1,500 autonomous floor cleaners, 300 automated shelf scanners, 1,200 FAST Unloaders, and 900 pickup towers to handle online orders. Each of the robots has features designed to enhance the customer experience, as well as make work easier for existing employees.

The Auto-C floor cleaner works autonomously, meaning it doesn’t require a human to operate. After a worker has cleared an area, the robot can be set loose to clean and polish floors without bumping into shelves.

This one is crazy. The Auto-S shelf scanner is able to move on its own and features a robotic arm equipped with a scanning device. This arm can move up and down while scanning shelves for missing items, misplaced items and accurate pricing. The robot then alerts employees when shelves need to be restocked or reorganized.

The FAST Unloader is designed to work hand-in-hand with the Auto-S scanner, organizing shipments based on data the scanner sends over. Items brought to the store by truck are automatically unloaded and sorted, based on department and priority, allowing empty shelves to be refilled even faster.

The Pickup Tower works like a combination storage locker and vending machine. Online orders are placed in the Pickup Tower by employees, with the machine able to sort and dispense the items to guests automatically. This prevents huge lines from forming in customer service and other departments.

Are Walmart robots replacing workers?

When it comes to automation, current Walmart employees are safe. For now. The fleet of robots, according to the company, is meant to enhance and streamline the retail experience for guests and workers alike.

With help from the new robots, workers will supposedly spend less time on manual labor and busy housekeeping. Instead, Walmart wants employees to focus on customer service and face-to-face interactions that make shopping more rewarding for customers.

Speaking of customers, they seem to be all-in on the robots as well. Walmart states that guest response to the new machines has been positive, with “natural curiosity” being the main reaction being seen. As for the employees themselves, Walmart said they’re embracing the robots for making their jobs easier and more focused.

Sidekicks or substitutes?

With automation continuing to grow, companies would be wise to follow Walmart’s example over total worker replacement. Walmart, rather than completely phasing out jobs, is framing their machines as “robot sidekicks” for their existing employees.

For now, the robots only perform tasks that take away from the human element of retail. What’s left for workers is an emphasis on customer service, a job that robots probably won’t be able to master any time soon.

Despite how much we embrace technology, human beings still crave social interactions found in brick-and-mortar retail outlets. After all, if a store were completely operated by robots, what point would there be to leave home and visit? If people want automated, faceless shopping, they’ll probably stick with Amazon.

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