We’ve all seen at least one movie in which robots raise their hand (or similar mechanical appendages) to strike down the humanity that built them. But real life is (hopefully) still a long way away from such events. Until then, researchers at the Tokyo-based robotics company Telexistence want bots to help build us up by restocking store shelves with soft drinks.
Christened TX SCARA, the bot is already in operation at 300 of the 16,000 “conbini” FamilyMart stores in Japan, tiny stores selling snacks, drinks, and other small items. Although armed with its own AI capabilities to determine which products need to be restocked, when, and where to put them, the robot can also ask for assistance and be given direct instructions by a Telexistence employee if faced with situations it cannot navigate by itself.
“We want to automate all the repetitive jobs and boring jobs done by humans. That is the direction we are going. And the best way to do that is to use the robots,” says Telexistence Chief Executive Jin Tomioka.
TX SCARA comes equipped with a clip-like hand on the end of a mechanical arm to allow it to manipulate a wide range of items. Its smarts are provided by “GORDON”, a piece of AI software that allows it to notice which items need restocking and where on the shelves they need to be placed in real time.
Telexistence explains that each TX SCARA can restock up to 1,000 bottles or cans a day. Although the asking price for one such bot is not yet publicly available, its abilities do undeniably make it invaluable for combini-type shops. These are typically small stores that are open 24/7, and although each stock around 3,000 different types of products, they employ very few workers. The beverage shelves and refrigerators are typically placed in the back of the store, the farthest point from the cash register, which means that workers spend a large part of their shift going back to restock beverages. This can also become a health concern for the workers as the refrigerated area can be uncomfortable or lead to health complications if employees spend too much time here.
Just in case the robot does get into a situation that it cannot deal with by itself, such as dropping a beverage, a Telexistence operator using virtual reality glasses will be notified and can take direct control to address the issue from the company’s office.
The bots were designed to conform to the needs and limitations of existing stores so that they don’t require any extra costs in changing their layout or normal operating procedures. Their hardware architecture is based on Nvidia GPU-accelerated AI technologies, with remote control capabilities handled over Microsoft’s cloud computing service Azure.
The development of TX SCARA hints at the potential robot helpers or workers could have in the service industry. Machines are already commonplace in production jobs, excelling on the assembly line in various factories due to their precision, productivity, and low costs. But they’ve never really been able to take on jobs in other industries that rely less on repetitive tasks, and more on contextual cues and adaptability.
That being said, Telexperience claims that its robots are far cheaper than the kind of industrial robot you’d find at a car factory, and are designed to coexist and collaborate with people. By taking care of rudimentary but routine tasks for cheap, they free up human workers to tackle more complex, complicated tasks, or those that require directly interacting with customers or other people. All in all, this should allow businesses to increase both profits and worker productivity.
As of writing this, 300 of the 16,000 FamilyMart stores operating in Japan are employing a TX SCARA. Telexistence is keen to expand this, and there is great potential for it — there are over 40,000 of these stores in operation in Japan, and over 150,000 in the US. Japan will likely be an easier country to market these robots to, as it is a developed economy facing a serious labor shortage, which would help offset the cost of the robot.