Lawson series this week published its first robot in a convenience store in Tokyo. FamilyMart tested the same robots last month, and they are two of the largest networks of small retail stores in Japan.
Companies in Japan are increasingly turning to technology as a solution to the young worker shortage crisis, as one-third of Japan’s population is 65 years of age or older.
Both series deploy a Model-T robot developed by Japanese start-up Telexistance. The robot is 7 feet high when fully standing, and moves on a platform on wheels and is equipped with cameras, microphones and sensors.
With the three “fingers” in his hands, he can fill shelves with products such as canned drinks, cans and rice bowls.
“The robot is capable of picking or picking up and placing objects of many different shapes and sizes in different locations,” Matt Komatsu, Head of Business Development and Operations at Tele Excellence, told CNN.
This distinguishes it from other robots used in stores, such as those used by Walmart to clear inventory of shelves, or those used in warehouses to stack boxes.
Komatsu says that warehouse robots “pick up the same thing from the same place and place it on the same platform … their movement is very limited compared to the movement of the Model T”. The store employees remotely control the Model T robot, named after the Ford car that pioneered the assembly line production in the early 1900s.
An employee wears virtual reality glasses and special gloves that make him “feel” about the products the robot carries. Microphones and headphones allow them to communicate with people in the store.
Many of the company’s stores find it especially difficult to hire people for short periods of 3 to 5 hours per day to stack on shelves, Yoshizawa adds. With a robot, they can use a single worker to work across multiple stores, and focus on hiring people to work in other jobs, he says.
Compared to other countries, Japan’s labor shortage means there is less concern that deploying robots will lead to human job losses. Japan was on track to automate 27% of current business tasks by 2030 before the Corona pandemic, according to a 2020 report released by management consulting firm McKinsey.
However, the Model T robot still has a long way to go before it works with the skill and speed of the human operator, as it takes 8 seconds for the robot to place one item on the shelf, while it takes about 5 seconds for a human to do the same.
So far, the robot can handle only packaged products, not bulk bakery products or fruits and vegetables. The company that developed the robot, which launched in 2017, is working to improve these restrictions. Using artificial intelligence, the company hopes to teach the robot to automatically copy human movements so that it can operate without human guidance.