Telexistence (TX), a Japanese robotics start-up, and FamilyMart, a leading convenience store chain in Japan, announced in early August the deployment of the “TX SCARA” AI robot and “TX Work Analytics” in-store task analysis system in 300 FamilyMart stores starting later this month. The chain’s validation of the technology paves the way for the expansion of the “robot as a service” solution in the United States.
Founded in 2017 and based in Tokyo, the TX startup designs, manufactures and operates remote-controlled robots using a variety of technologies such as AI, robotics, telepresence, communications, virtual reality and haptics. Its goal is to extend the reach of robot activities beyond the factory floor and revolutionize the fundamental nature of the work society.
The TX SCARA robot
The TX SCARA (Selective Compliance Assembly Robot Arm) robot, equipped with TX Gordon’s proprietary AI system, was designed to perform the specific task of replenishing refrigerated shelves with bottles and cans, a repetitive and tedious job in a generally confined, low-temperature environment. Equipped with an arm and a camera, it shuttles along a rail between the stock shelves and the back of a customer-facing refrigerator, moving up to 1,000 beverages a day. It was first tested at one of the FamilyMart chain’s stores in Tokyo in November 2021.
Automatically controlled by the GORDON AI system that lets it know when and where products should be placed on the shelves, it can operate 24/7, allowing store staff to focus on higher value-added tasks such as customer service.
Tomohiro Kano, general manager of the store development department and the railroad and corporate franchise department, FamilyMart, said:
“The declining labor force in Japan is one of the major management issues for FamilyMart to maintain stable store operations. The introduction of Telexistence robots in FamilyMart stores will eliminate the need for store employees to replenish drinks in refrigerators, and the newly created time can be reallocated to customer service and shop floor improvements, leading to higher quality store operations.”
In the event of a replenishment failure (miscalculation or dropped item), the robot can be switched to Telexistence mode, which allows an operator with a virtual reality headset to control the robot remotely for quick recovery.
The GORDON AI system
GORDON, TX’s proprietary artificial intelligence system, uses a self-analysis module to recognize product availability on the shelf. It also calculates the pick-up point of the beverage and generates a path plan from where the bottle or can is picked up to where it is to be placed. In addition, it analyzes sales patterns, i.e. which items sell the most by time or season, and replenishes according to these criteria.
The TX Work Analytics system
In addition to the TX SCARA robot, TX will provide the TX Work Analytics workflow tool to FamilyMart stores. Staff will wear the location information transmitter to view task types and workload in the store throughout a workday. TX Work Analytics will help optimize work schedules and staff assignment in the environment where the AI robot performs shelf replenishment tasks in the back storage areas.
Overcoming labor shortages
Telexistence is taking another step toward its goal of improving simple workflows with robots through a collaboration with NVIDIA and Microsoft Japan: NVIDIA GPU-accelerated AI technologies are being integrated into hardware originally developed by Telexistence to provide AI and remote control of robots via the Microsoft Azure platform.
In fact, this initiative is part of the “Task Force to Promote the Construction of Robot Implementation Models” led by Japan’s Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry, in which FamilyMart has been participating since November 2019, aiming to reduce the number of workers in stores and build a new store operation infrastructure using robots.
Jim Tomokia, CEO of Telexistence, explains:
“Currently, the biggest limiting factor for any industry in any nation is human resources. Especially in developed countries like Japan, the shortage of human labor is quickly becoming apparent in the retail and logistics sectors, which support human life in society. We are promoting the large-scale production and social implementation of our robots for industries other than factory automation, industries that function as the infrastructure of daily life in society. We will also bring our automated work solutions to other regions, such as the U.S.”