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Alphabot’s Got Your Groceries in the Bag

November 4, 2018 GMT

BILLERICA -- It’s a familiar routine for many Americans. Pushing a grocery cart down the aisle, browsing the shelves, selecting next week’s meals, then checking out.

Inventor John Lert has another way to describe it: “unpaid warehouse worker.”

Lert is the co-founder and CEO at Alert Innovation, a Billerica company looking to transform the way people buy groceries.

It involves robots.

“I believe that this ... is actually the answer to that most significant problem in retail: How do existing retailers survive the onslaught of Amazon and food retail in an internet-enabled age?” Lert said.

Count Walmart intrigued. The retail giant is installing a 20,000-square-foot system based around the robot designed by Alert Innovation, the Alphabot, at its supercenter in Salem, New Hampshire.

When the system goes live at the beginning of February, it will load up the the bags of customers who order their groceries online through the store’s pickup service, according to a Kory Lundberg, a spokeswoman for Walmart.

“We have a lot to learn about how this new technology will improve the customer and associate experience, but we are excited about the possibilities,” Lundberg wrote. “This system is designed to help associates to fulfill orders quicker, improve inventory accuracy and be nearly invisible to in-store shoppers.”

The installation is a trial run for a system Alert Innovation hopes will eventually expand well beyond the Salem location.

In a video produced with the help of Walmart, the Alphabot is introduced through close-up shots to the tune of the “2001:A Space Odyssey” theme.

But getting to this futuristic point was a process.

As an inventor, Lert said he is always on the lookout for problems to solve. Even the cubicles in his company’s Billerica office are designed with efficiency in mind. Their transportable frames cut a full-office rearrangement involving dozens of employees to a 45-minute process, he said.

In the mid-1990s, Lert became interested in the complex business of food retail.

He argued that an automated cashier and shopping process would improve the customer experience, create efficiencies and maybe generate buzz about the store. But at that time, the retailer getting a full return on its investment still seemed out of reach, Lert said.

“It seemed totally impractical from a logic standpoint, because you’re trying to automate what customers do for free,” he said.

As it has for many other industries, Lert believes the internet has changed that reality.

Amazon is positioning itself in the food market, most clearly through its 2017 purchase of Whole Foods. In Europe, personal shoppers make up about 10 percent of sales, according to Lert.

However, online food shopping has hit some stumbling blocks. Consumers aren’t eager to take on the extra cost of home delivery, Lert said, and many are wary of having others pick out fresh products like produce.

Lert’s vision of the future of food shopping using his company’s technology takes into consideration some of these setbacks.

“The objective is to create an extremely flexible experience where the store works the way the customer wants,” he said. “If you want to pick out your own fresh, but you are happy to let the robots pick your package goods, that I believe will be the winning model that most customers embrace.”

Customers would order their packaged groceries on their smartphones or screens provided in the store. Then, while the Alphabot prepares their order, they can shop for their fresh goods and pick up the groceries as they leave.

Each Alphabot can carry up to 50 pounds with storage space a little taller than a gallon of milk and three open grocery bags wide.

When a customer submits an order, one Alphabot carrying the product and another with customer’s bags zoom to a “picking workstation.” There, a human employee transfers the product from one robot to the bags carried by the other robot.

Currently the system can move through this cycle once every 4 1/2 seconds, though the goal is to reduce this time to 3 seconds, or 1,200 items an hour.

The process repeats again and again until the order is filled.

For any customer who has returned from the store only to discover a squashed loaf of bread, Lert said the software used to run the system takes common sense grocery bagging protocol into consideration.

“We don’t pack cleaning solutions with food,” he said. “We put heavy on the bottom and light on the top.”

If a customer wants to further specify what goes into which bag, the technology allows for further customization.

Key to the product is the robot’s ability to move both laterally and up and down on a skeletal framework.

“This is not easy stuff,” Lert said. “We’re designing machines that never have existed. Figuring out how to make a little mobile robot turn itself into an elevator is not an easy thing to do.”

Lert believes companies like Amazon have prepared the public for a more automated customer experience.

However, he acknowledges, in many sectors, increased automation and jobs are often at odds. Lert believes this conflict shouldn’t impede technological advances that allow us to “live lives like kings lived 100 years ago,” but remains something the political system needs to address.

“Machines in general are becoming so capable at performing tasks that increasingly require human intelligence to do,” he said. “As a society we’re facing a real challenge. How do we enable people to live productive, economically successful lives without needing to work?”

Lert said that because the Alphabot takes the role of the customer, not the employee, Alert Innovation doesn’t face these same challenges. According to Walmart, the introduction of grocery pickup enabled by the Alphabot will create 10 new jobs at the store, about the same as other locations with this service.

For Alert Innovation, this Walmart trial is key, according to Lert. Lundberg said Walmart plans to evaluate its operations.

“We won’t make any decision on the next steps until we have a better understanding of how the system works in a store environment -- including associate and customer feedback,” Lundberg said.

Alert Innovation was created on paper in 2013 by Lert, a Wakefield resident, and co-founder Bill Fosnight. In 2016, the company started in earnest with eight employees based in a North Billerica “hallway,” drawn to the region by its talent pool. Since then, the company has grown to 85 employees and a full office, with more positions expected to be added before the end of the year.

For now, they’re running the robots through trial after trial, perfecting the system for Walmart customers and, they hope, the future.

“Salem is make or break,” Lert said. “This is the opportunity we have to make it work.”

Follow Elizabeth Dobbins on Twitter @ElizDobbins.