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Walmart signs on with local robot maker to automate distribution centers

A Walmart store in San Leandro, California, in May 2021. Photographer: David Paul Morris/Bloomberg
A Walmart store in San Leandro, California, in May 2021. Photographer: David Paul Morris/BloombergDavid Paul Morris/Bloomberg

The global retailer Walmart has struck a deal with warehouse automation company Symbotic that will put the Wilmington company’s robots and software inside 25 of Walmart’s regional distribution centers.

It’s an alliance that further bolsters the status of Greater Boston as a world leader in the surging warehouse automation market.

Symbotic chief executive Rick Cohen declined to reveal the dollar value of the deal. But he said the Walmart warehouses are massive, with 1.5 million square feet of storage space each, and up to 300,000 unique merchandise items.

Cohen is also owner of New Hampshire’s C&S Wholesale Grocers, one of the nation’s largest privately held businesses. He founded Symbotic in 2005 to develop better ways to pack and ship merchandise to retail stores.

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“We’ve been in stealth mode for a long time,” said Cohen, “trying to get this product to be as good as I wanted it to be.” (Walmart has been testing a Symbotic system at one of its Florida warehouses since 2017.)

Restocking hundreds of Walmart stores is a task of Byzantine complexity. Each store needs thousands of new items every day, with different stores needing different items. So warehouse workers assemble customized pallets of merchandise for each store. A single pallet may contain dozens of cartons with a variety of items from different manufacturers. Workers trudge through the warehouse collecting items for palletization, sometimes with assistance from wheeled robots.

The Symbotic system requires far less human labor. Instead, robotic arms sort merchandise as it arrives at the warehouse, loading each item onto a wheeled shuttle that carries it on tracks to a specific shelf. When a store needs restocking, the same shuttles collect the needed items and carry them to a packing area where robots place them onto pallets. The stack of stuff is then shrink-wrapped and loaded onto a delivery truck.

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“We actually had to build our own proprietary robots that would go fast enough and handle different kinds of shapes,” said Cohen. “I looked at all the innovation and I didn’t like what I saw, so I decided I was going to do it myself.”

John Lert, who co-founded Symbotic and left the company in 2011, is also putting robots to work for Walmart. Lert’s current company, Alert Innovation of North Billerica, makes robotic mini-warehouses that are connected on-site to Walmart stores. The facilities use robots to assemble individual customer orders for pickup and delivery. The first of these automated systems was launched in Salem, New Hampshire, in 2019, and in January, Walmart announced plans to add them to dozens more of its stores.

Adhish Luitel, a supply chain analyst with ABI Research, said there’s growing demand for warehouse automation, largely because warehouse jobs are so unappealing to humans. “You just can’t find workers anymore,” said Luitel. The trend is also being driven by the surge in online shopping spawned by the COVID-19 pandemic.

According to ABI Research, sales of autonomous material-handling robots is projected to reach $49 billion by 2030. The Greater Boston area is home to a host of warehouse robotics companies, including Amazon Robotics, 6 River Systems, Locus Robotics, Vecna Robotics, and Berkshire Grey.

Even Boston Dynamics, best known for its doglike Spot walking robots, has announced plans to launch a warehouse robotics unit. In March, the company unveiled Stretch, a wheeled machine designed to unload trucks.

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Hiawatha Bray can be reached at hiawatha.bray@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeTechLab.