Why Walmart is adding thousands of robots to U.S. stores

"Think R2D2," Walmart wrote in a press release. Others are thinking "layoffs."

Why Walmart is adding thousands of robots to U.S. stores
Photo credit: Rick T. Wilking / GETTY
  • Walmart plans to soon add more than 3,900 robots to stores across the U.S.
  • The robots will perform tasks such as scanning products, sorting shipments, cleaning floors, and readying online purchases for pickup.
  • Walmart says the robots will free up time for employees to help customers, while critics say its a long-term move toward replacing human workers.

Walmart is adding thousands of new robots to stores across the U.S., a move that comes as retailers struggle to attract and retain workers amid record-low unemployment rates.

The mammoth retailer plans to bring more than 3,900 robots to U.S. stores to perform a variety of "repeatable, predictable" tasks.

"Our associates immediately understood the opportunity for the new technology to free them up from focusing on tasks that are repeatable, predictable and manual," said John Crecelius, senior vice president of Central Operations for Walmart U.S., in a press release. "It allows them time to focus more on selling merchandise and serving customers, which they tell us have always been the most exciting parts of working in retail."

The new robots will include about 300 "Auto-S" shelf scanners, 1,500 "Auto-C" floor cleaners, 900 "Pickup" towers, and 1,200 "FAST Unloaders," used to help employees unload and sort products from trucks.

Walmart is framing these robots as fun, anthropomorphized sidekicks.

"Think R2D2, Optimus Prime and Robot from Lost in Space," the company wrote in a press release. "Just like Will Robinson and Luke Skywalker, having the right kind of support helps our associates succeed at their jobs."

But elsewhere, company executives have suggested the automation of certain tasks could lead to the elimination of low-rung jobs.

"As we evolve, there are certain activities, certain jobs that'll go away," Walmart US CFO Michael Dastugue said at an analyst conference in March.

In December, the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union's Making Change at Walmart project released a statement alleging Walmart actively intends to cut jobs — about one per store, it estimates — with the robots.

"Make no mistake, Walmart's move to autonomous floor cleaners is not about better serving customers and workers," the statement read. "This latest job-killing venture has the potential to destroy over 5,000 maintenance jobs in the U.S. if it is implemented in every Walmart store."

Still, Walmart it's maybe no wonder Walmart is looking toward automation, considering its massive stores are expensive to operate, more people are shopping online, and the retail sector has been losing workers since 2017.

"There is a labor shortage in retail," Kirthi Kalyanam, director of the Retail Management Institute at Santa Clara University, told CNN. "It will not be easy for Walmart to add labor to perform these functions. So a high level of automation is required."

Overall, the unemployment is strikingly low — just 3.8 percent for most of March. In the short term, Walmart U.S. CFO Michael Dastugue suggested adding the robots means workers will face more role flexibility at work.

"We may need them to do them one activity in the morning and a different activity in the afternoon," he said, adding it'll force employees to "be able to handle change."

Still, it'd be a far different story if robots began to replace the bulk of U.S. cashiers, of which there are more than 3 million. Erikka Knuti, a communications director for United Food and Commercial Workers International Union communications, said it's unclear what these workers would do if not cashiering.

"Those are good jobs that can provide a person with a living and a way to provide a better living for their family," she told Forbes. "They're not going to all go to Silicon Valley and start coding, and not everybody can do warehouse work."

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This article was originally published on our sister site, Freethink.

An international team of astronomers has conducted the biggest survey of stellar nurseries to date, charting more than 100,000 star-birthing regions across our corner of the universe.

Stellar nurseries: Outer space is filled with clouds of dust and gas called nebulae. In some of these nebulae, gravity will pull the dust and gas into clumps that eventually get so big, they collapse on themselves — and a star is born.

These star-birthing nebulae are known as stellar nurseries.

The challenge: Stars are a key part of the universe — they lead to the formation of planets and produce the elements needed to create life as we know it. A better understanding of stars, then, means a better understanding of the universe — but there's still a lot we don't know about star formation.

This is partly because it's hard to see what's going on in stellar nurseries — the clouds of dust obscure optical telescopes' view — and also because there are just so many of them that it's hard to know what the average nursery is like.

The survey: The astronomers conducted their survey of stellar nurseries using the massive ALMA telescope array in Chile. Because ALMA is a radio telescope, it captures the radio waves emanating from celestial objects, rather than the light.

"The new thing ... is that we can use ALMA to take pictures of many galaxies, and these pictures are as sharp and detailed as those taken by optical telescopes," Jiayi Sun, an Ohio State University (OSU) researcher, said in a press release.

"This just hasn't been possible before."

Over the course of the five-year survey, the group was able to chart more than 100,000 stellar nurseries across more than 90 nearby galaxies, expanding the amount of available data on the celestial objects tenfold, according to OSU researcher Adam Leroy.

New insights: The survey is already yielding new insights into stellar nurseries, including the fact that they appear to be more diverse than previously thought.

"For a long time, conventional wisdom among astronomers was that all stellar nurseries looked more or less the same," Sun said. "But with this survey we can see that this is really not the case."

"While there are some similarities, the nature and appearance of these nurseries change within and among galaxies," he continued, "just like cities or trees may vary in important ways as you go from place to place across the world."

Astronomers have also learned from the survey that stellar nurseries aren't particularly efficient at producing stars and tend to live for only 10 to 30 million years, which isn't very long on a universal scale.

Looking ahead: Data from the survey is now publicly available, so expect to see other researchers using it to make their own observations about stellar nurseries in the future.

"We have an incredible dataset here that will continue to be useful," Leroy said. "This is really a new view of galaxies and we expect to be learning from it for years to come."

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