This post was written by IAM Robotics Chief Robotics Engineer, John Cameron.
To start off, this is a story about packaging, and where the packaging industry could end up. But the story of product packaging is a complicated one. After all, how products are packaged and presented is closely related to how we shop for and receive them….and the latter has changed a LOT over the past 100-150 years.
The U.S. is experiencing increasing demand by consumers who want more products, faster, compounded by a shrinking manual workforce. During “normal” times, customers spend 40 billion hours in stores—equivalent to 20 million full-time jobs. When you add a pandemic to the mix, that time and demand grows exponentially, with people shopping online or using BOPIS (buy online, pick up in-store).
The picking process is the hardest part of order fulfillment and also the most time consuming, leaving companies to search for efficient solutions. Enter: robotics. For our part, IAM Robotics operationalizes the long tail in the e-commerce market. Our Swift autonomous mobile manipulation robot (AMMR) helps companies maximize profits and labor efficiencies from low-volume SKUs by automating piece picking. Swift navigates aisles safely and accurately, picking and transporting products downstream at up to human-level speeds—a major benefit when demand and available labor aren’t in sync.
Packaging Will Be Driven by Pickability
Robotic picking technologies face a major barrier toward wide-scale adoption—like extreme package variability driven by marketing needs. Despite advances in grippers and sensors , certain packaging will not be pickable by a given gripper or observable by a given sensor within the price ranges needed for a long time (if ever). Further, as the industry starts to consider robotic picking over human picking, the need for variability all but goes away. After all, when you’re shopping online, your priority is the product you’re buying, not its packaging.
Distributors and Suppliers are Poised to Win
Soon enough, packaging changes will be driven by machine pickability, not visual presentation that drives an emotional sale. Of course, there will be pushback from the industry initially, because this shift will be viewed as a threat to how companies do business. However, the early winners of the transition to e-commerce will be two groups: distributors and suppliers. Distributors who create newer shopping experiences that leverage innovative web presentations, eventually including AR and VR will keep consumers engaged. Suppliers who partner with them will be able to provide these experiences and new ways of selling. After all, when you’re shopping online, you don’t need to know what the actual package looks like, just the product itself.
We are already seeing technology influence in-store product display. Color e-paper shelf displays are allowing more engaging presentations of features and pricing in places like Japan, while Walgreens has been trialing digital displays for their freezer doors that can display animations, ads, and consistently clean product presentations. AR-enabled apps are showing up in stores to provide enhanced navigational and promotional experiences, and are starting to appear on our phones to assist with furniture and shoe shopping. Fully virtual storefronts are also being constructed, allowing near-infinite flexibility and space for offerings to retailers and shoppers alike .
Experience Over Presentation
Another driving force to build upon is that millennials (who are, contrary to popular belief, in their 30s and are prime shoppers) are oriented toward experiences over material items . They will likely be the first wave of shoppers driven to new experience-driven shopping venues (both physical and virtual). They won’t care as much about on-the-face packaging. They will care about the product and purchasing experience, unboxing it from whatever package it’s in, and moving on. This is already happening with companies that provide monthly “boxes,” and the massive proliferation of “unboxing” channels on YouTube.
Such a drive to standardization shouldn’t be a surprise. Every industry that experiences automation sees (and implements) new standardized policies and procedures for machine-to-material interaction  .
Factors Driving Standardization
Robots are not made to compete with the dexterity of a human worker. Industries that have adopted robotic technology were instead made to accommodate the requirements of the machines in order to reap the benefits that they offered. This is always so the cost of the technology can be kept as low as possible and the efficiencies gained as high as possible. Without standardization, it would be impossible to adopt any machinery – robotic or otherwise – at any appreciable scale. Sometimes that standardization is internally contained within a given company or facility, other times the changes are felt globally.
From Physical to Virtual Spaces
The geography of picking has been shaped by a balance between stores who have to monetize their shelf space, manufacturers who pack and ship products to those stores, product survivability experts who ensure the product “lives” to the point of sale, and advertisers who make each sale emotionally positive. This will change primarily due to the supermarket transitioning to a distribution center . The shelf space won’t be directly monetized and sold, the virtual space will be. Like the packaging on Atari-era video games, the emotional sales experience will have little to do with the actual product. The new entrant—autonomous picking machines—will shape this new landscape.
Home Delivery is Back in Full Force
Having a lot of items delivered at home, especially food and/or grocery items, is not historically unusual. Instead, the “traditional” way of shopping at stores for most items is the anomaly. In the past, deliveries primarily consisted of perishables such as dairy (Remember the milk man?) and meats, due to the lack of home refrigeration. But they also included other items such as orders from department stores (Imagine calling Macy’s with a shopping list of items to be boxed and delivered same-day!) and prescription drugs.
Delivery was a staple for just about anything, like:
- Ice cream
All one needed to do was leave the back door unlocked and put a cardboard sign with the goods needed in their window, and delivery drivers knew to stop and drop off a few items. But unlike today–when pet supplies and UberEats are delivered just about anywhere–it was really only practical in densely-populated cities.
That’s why in the 1950’s, home delivery started to drop off with increased suburban migration, home refrigeration, and automobile access. America was also enjoying an economic boom that stemmed from a) being the only fully-intact manufacturing power in the world following WWII, b) available labor from the returning GIs, c) a large demand for consumption following wartime restrictions and rations, and d) massive domestic government investment. This combination of capacity, demand, and capital is credited with creating stable, single-income households in newly constructed suburbs, having their own automobiles  . The additional time and mobility in the family enabled people to go shopping for themselves at higher rates than before, where shoppers enjoyed the convenience, choice, and lower prices offered by rapidly-expanding supermarket chains  .
Time is as Good as Money Today
Modern American households no longer enjoy much of a time luxury, finding themselves under increasing time pressures to maintain similar standards of living to generations past. Indeed, the conditions that drove what we consider as the “normal” shopping experience were a historical anomaly. But as we move forward, we see the effects on our realized costs. For instance, increases in automation have brought increases in productivity. That productivity has caused the cost of household goods to plummet. And while these monetary savings are important, they are far outweighed by the dramatic cost increases of quality of life metrics. .
Automation is Inevitable in the Future of Picking and Packaging
The pressures of the modern era are driving technological change and demand for home delivery services – like the ones earlier generations had. In turn, home delivery will likely lead to simpler packaging, coupled with more involved marketing styles in correlation with the reduced visibility of packaged goods at the points of sale and selection process. But that doesn’t mean we’re going backwards. On the contrary, these things will be reinvented for modern technology, some of which will include robotic picking systems to fulfill online orders—a mechanism to offset labor demands from shoppers. Automation is inevitable, but so is standardization. That standardization will be in the form of packaging.