By RYAN LESSARD
Union Leader Correspondent
August 03. 2018 8:36PM
SALEM â€” At a â€śgrand re-openingâ€ť ceremony at the Salem Walmart Supercenter Friday morning, the company unveiled a pilot program that will use robots to gather grocery items from online orders. Salemâ€™s store will be the first to test the system.
The robot called â€śAlphabotâ€ť was developed by ALERT Innovation in North Billerica, Mass. It resembles a shopping cart on wheels and can travel through a three-dimensional track system and interact with store employees who can transfer items from one basket to another.
ALERT CEO John Lert said he plans to begin installation in late September. The system is expected to go live in January. The robots are manufactured by Plexus in Wisconsin.
Lert said theyâ€™ll start out with 50 robots for testing, but will likely only need 30 in service. Just like other Walmart stores with human-powered online ordering, the robots will be able to handle at least 20 orders in a day, with the ability to grow from there as needed.
â€śOne of the things with Alphabot is it scales with demand,â€ť Lert said.
The system is the â€śfirst and only of its kind in the world,â€ť according to Jack Williams, Walmartâ€™s regional general manager.
The idea is to create an efficient and cost-saving system for retrieving groceries ordered by customers online that will not require prices to increase. The current system requires employees to move throughout the store up and down the aisles to retrieve groceries.
Williams said Walmart isnâ€™t sure how much money this system will save.
â€śWeâ€™ll learn a lot from this pilot,â€ť Williams said.
Still, he doesnâ€™t anticipate the robots will replace human labor, but allow employees to better help in-store customers. The renovations to the store have been in progress since February. Since then, Williams said the store has added 70 employees to a total exceeding 300.
â€śIt was always the plan to remodel the store,â€ť Williams said.
The renovations include moving the pickup tower to the front of the store, remodeling bathrooms and designing an entertainment department.
At some point in the last year, the Salem location, which also serves as an academy store for training new hires from four different markets, was also selected to pilot the automatic order retrieval system.
The current Alphabot system can automatically add most prepackaged groceries to its basket. But it will require human employees to retrieve meat and produce.
Lert said ALERT was founded in 2013, but it only became funded and operational two years ago. He remarked during the re-opening ceremony how quickly the company formed its team and created the product. Lert said the company still has a lot in front of it before it can make the system ready for full-scale production.
Before a ribbon cutting, Gov. Chris Sununu, state Senate President Chuck Morse and Commissioner of Education Frank Edelblut gave brief remarks.
Sununu joked that he would like to see Alphabot renamed.
â€śIt sounds like an engineer named it,â€ť Sununu said.
When asked if he was open to rebranding the robot, Lert laughed. â€śNot gonna happen,â€ť he said.