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Walmart is bringing robots to all 42 regional distribution centers

Retailer to retrofit facilities over next 8-plus years in partnership with Symbotic

Walmart cancels billions of dollars in orders in inventory right-sizing move (Photo: Jim Allen/FreightWaves)

The world’s largest retailer is steadily becoming one of the largest delivery providers. 

Walmart has been bolstering its delivery services for years, taking a tech-enabled approach to distribution and fulfillment that has given it a leg up on just about everybody besides Amazon and the big three national carriers. And it’s not done yet.

Walmart (NYSE: WMT) on Monday announced that it had expanded its partnership with supply chain automation company Symbotic to deploy robots in all 42 of its regional distribution centers. The two companies will retrofit the facilities over the next eight-plus years.

Symbotic is the brainchild of billionaire CEO Rick Cohen, who also owns grocery supply company C&S Wholesale Grocers. The Wilmington, Massachusetts-based company’s Symbotic Systems platform uses a proprietary AI-driven software that powers a fleet of fully autonomous robots to receive, retrieve and store items.

Monday’s announcement builds on Walmart’s existing partnership with Symbotic to automate 25 of its regional distribution centers, which the retailer announced last July.

Read: Walmart to hire 3,000 drivers in major expansion of home delivery services

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“As a technology platform with deep roots in warehousing and distribution, our system addresses some of the biggest challenges of today’s complex supply chain, such as inventory agility, transportation cost and labor availability,” Cohen said in a statement accompanying the announcement. “Modernizing the warehouse allows consumers to get what they need faster and creates benefits for everyone including workers, customers and their local communities.”

Symbotic’s platform uses dense modular storage that expands building capacity. The software is essentially playing a massive game of Tetris, using algorithms to tell high-speed mobile robots where to store cases. At the same time, robotic palletizers help organize freight to create pallets that are aisle ready.

Though adoption remains relatively low, warehouse automation is beginning to catch on. Robots are being used in a wide variety of ways within the warehouse, from simple functions like materials transport to complex tasks such as sortation. That’s enabling warehouse operators to embrace new strategies like zone-based or goods-to-person picking.

Watch: The equally important and costly final mile inside warehouses

“The need for accuracy and speed in the supply chain has never been more visible, and we’re confident that now is the time to move even faster by scaling Symbotic’s technology to our entire regional distribution center network,” said David Guggina, senior vice president of innovation and automation at Walmart U.S. “Using high-speed robotics and intelligent software to organize and optimize inventory, the Symbotic System helps us get products to our customers quickly and seamlessly by revolutionizing how we receive and distribute products to stores.”

To Guggina’s point, automation could help Walmart now more than ever. Both it and rival Target posted weak Q1 2022 earnings last week as e-commerce sales slowed and inventories piled up. Robots and AI-driven insights could relieve some of the bloat.

Walmart has already been using automation for fulfillment of online grocery orders since 2019, seeing enough success to ramp up the program early in 2021. The world’s largest retailer has also been experimenting with using robots in its retail stores.

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Jack Daleo

Jack is a staff writer for FreightWaves and Modern Shipper covering topics like last mile delivery and e-commerce fulfillment. He studied at Northwestern University, majoring in journalism with a certificate in integrated marketing communications. Previously, Jack has written for Backpacker Magazine and enjoys travel, the outdoors, and all things basketball.