Online grocery shopping, along with online shopping in general, is booming, and is projected to reach up to $100 billion a year by 2022 with as many as 70 percent of consumers regularly buying such goods online, according to Nielsen.
But for big-city dwellers, the wait for groceries can be hours or even a day – and even when the delivery arrives, it is not necessarily what was ordered thanks to the busy, error-prone supermarket employees who assemble them.
One of the companies trying to solve these problems is Tel Aviv-based CommonSense Robotics, which earlier this month launched what it calls “the world’s smallest automated e-commerce facility,” serving the metropolitan area of Tel Aviv and delivering groceries to customers’ doorsteps within one hour of the placement of their order.
The startup’s main goal is to improve both the overall satisfaction of clients and the efficiency of the service provided by retailers, thanks to system that handles the online orders and manages them using several robots.
“CommonSense Robotics was started because as consumers, our founders wondered: why can’t we get our online orders faster and cheaper than going to the store?” marketing manager Anna Dalton told The Times of Israel in a phone interview.
To that end, the company aims to set up a network of what it calls automated micro-fulfillment centers (MFCs) – small and almost completely robotized spaces located in city centers. These facilities are crowded with hundreds of robots, many in the shape of supermarket trolleys on wheels, moving across the facilities.
Generally, embracing automated systems means disregarding consumers’ expectations of either same-day or on-demand deliveries of groceries, the company explained in a statement: Robotic facilities generally are the size of between four and 20 football fields; thus, such warehouses cannot be built in city centers and are set up in the city’s outskirts, resulting in slow and costly last-mile deliveries.
In addition, online orders are generally still manually assembled inside a store, leading to inaccuracies, the company said.
The Israeli company hopes to change the way things are done. CommonSense’s facilities have been designed to optimize space efficiency and will occupy just 6,000 square feet, way less than a football field in size, Avital Sterngold, VP of operations, said in a company video.
“Because we knew we wanted to be inside cities so that we could be always close to customers, we built our robotic solution from the ground up so that everything is designed to be able to fit into small spaces,” Dalton said in a phone interview.
“The MFC is essentially where inventory is stored, where the orders are taken and packed and sent out for delivery,” she said.
Dalton said that depending on the product, retailers drop off their inventory at the MFC daily, weekly or even a few times a day. There, staffers unpack, scan and put products inside the blue boxes, which are then “carried by robots to be stored in the shelving units,” all according to an inventory management system that “knows exactly where everything is,” she added.
“When online orders are placed, they are directed (by the retailer) to us at the MFC, and our system processes them,” she explained. “The software system tells robots to collect all of the items that a consumer ordered, pulling them from the shelving units and bringing them to a human picker, who picks the order out and packs it for delivery essentially.”
A central computer sends out signals to the robots, whose sensors guide them on grids along the floor to the requested products they are supposed to fetch and help them avoid hitting other objects.
The company-developed robots pick up the items from the shelves — contained inside the blue boxes, which were designed for space optimization — and hand them over to the robots on wheels, which move on the floor and along a grid. If an item is too big, a human employee handles the order, from a special oversized area.
These boxes filled with the products are then brought to humans, who sort the orders and send them for delivery.
The system is designed to reduce human errors, Dalton said, which is “one of the biggest problems of e-commerce.” It also helps human operators stay at their stations, where they scan the objects, without having to walk miles a day to fill out the orders.
The time needed for the typical order to be placed, prepared for dispatch and sent to delivery, would not exceed five minutes, CommonSense Robotics’ CEO and co-founder Elram Goren explains in the video.
Dalton said that products will be available across all temperature ranges — fresh, frozen or chilled — because “everything you get in a grocery basket is supported by our system.”
She added that the firm does not sell its technology to retailers but is rather offering a service, with its robotic installations helping existing supermarket networks to cater to their clients. She added that the company gets paid per item ordered.
CommonSense Robotics was set up in 2015 by Goren with co-founders Eyal Goren, Ori Avraham and Shay Cohen. The firm “just crossed the 100-employee mark,” Dalton told The Times of Israel.
The firm has raised some $26 million funds from investors including VCs Aleph, Playground Global and Innovation Endeavors, according to Start-Up Nation Central, which tracks Israel’s high-tech industry.
The company has started to work with various large grocery retailers in the US, where the grocery market is worth around one trillion dollars, Dalton said. Five sites are set to open across the East Coast in 2019 alone, she said.
In Israel, the first MFC will serve the customers of Super-Pharm, the largest drugstore chain in the country, the company said in a statement.
Additionally, the Israeli startup has signed an agreement with discount supermarket chain Rami Levy Hashikma, to provide it with 12 robotic installations over the next few years for the management of online orders, Dalton said.
Rami Levy said that it “regards this agreement as a significant measure in the framework of its strategy for providing consumers with service and quality, while taking action to expand and streamline its online sales and reducing its operating costs,” according to the financial website Globes.
Asked about competitors, Dalton said that what mainly differentiates CommonSense Robotics is that every part of its solution has been designed to fit in small spaces, enabling the company to offer a full range of products.
“We don’t need to offer a smaller number of products just because we are in a smaller space, and that’s really important when moving online, because customers online don’t want to choose form a smaller selection. We are offering the same experience and prices they would find going to a store,” Dalton said.