A New England grocery billionaire believes that his side business could upend the warehouse and distribution industry within five years.
The Wall Street Journal this week profiled Symbotic LLC, the robotics company purchased by Rick Cohen, the third-generation owner of wholesale grocery giant C&S.
Robotics and automation are already taking over the nation's logistics sector, but the Journal notes that Symbotic's more advanced robots — which resemble "driverless go-carts" — can move freely throughout warehouses at speeds of up to 25 miles per hour to stack and retrieve boxes.
The robots also wirelessly communicate with each other and can collaborate with conventional robots in warehouses.
Cohen implemented Symbotic systems in C&S warehouses — a rare embrace of automation in the food industry — and subsequently struck deals or began discussions with Coca-Cola, Target and Walmart.
“What we’re doing with autonomous bots is not that dissimilar from what Google is doing with autonomous cars,” Cohen told the Journal.
Symbotic's systems are not perfect; the equipment can reportedly cost up to $80 million, and its robots can still be tripped up by cracks or spills.
But the company argued that it can trim warehouse labor costs by up to 80 percent and help companies operate out of smaller facilities.
Although those factors could help retailers' bottom lines, the proliferation of Symbotic will do little to quell fears about the impact of automation on the human workforce.
“Employers are looking to move more and more into automation, and I think we’re going to be faced with those challenges in contract negotiations in coming years," Steve Vairma of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters union told the paper.
Here's the Wall Street Journal's video on the topic: