In under five years, IDC analysts predict 40 percent of Global 2000 manufacturers will digitally connect at least 30 percent of robots to a cloud platform for improved operational efficiency and agility.

In fact, as artificial intelligence (AI) increasingly powers autonomous things like robots, the No. 1 goal of companies is to connect organizational silos for business value. This is why I made a beeline for the next-generation robotics display at the recent SAPPHIRE NOW and ASUG Annual Conference.

Groundbreaking Efficiencies and Savings

To be sure, robots already toil away in many industries. But the three examples of SAP co-innovation I saw broke new ground in human-computer interaction, impacting daily and strategic business processes to dramatically change the employee and customer experience.

Unlike larger, industrialized early ancestors, this latest robot species is designed with built-in connectivity to systems from the warehouse to retailer. Less expensive than their predecessors, they’re also loaded with colored lights, sensors and cameras. Inside the warehouse, these robots can select the right products and load them on other transport robots for delivery to a shipping dock. Colored lights indicate their route so people can work alongside them safely.

“Previously, robots used in large manufacturing facilities were so powerful that they could have harmed humans if they got too close,” said David Owen, director of the Retail Advisory Group at SAP. “This newest generation of robots have sensors on them so they can react to humans.”

He added that prices for warehouse robots — including installation and operation — have significantly decreased: “Some of our customers report 30 percent savings for each item picked.”

Robot Patrols Change Supermarket Experience

The robot story only got better as Owen walked me through the next example in a supermarket, which used the SAP Supply Chain Control Tower solution. Picture a robot moving side-by-side with customers through grocery store aisles. Its 2D and 3D cameras and sensors could count inventory, spot misplaced or mislabeled items, conduct price checks, and identify what products needed replenishment. Connectivity with the robots in the warehouse, linked to SAP Extended Warehouse Management, could trigger alerts to pick and ship replacement items for that store.

As I watched the screen display, up popped an actual image of the shelf in real time, showing the exact location in the store, product names and sizes, and the status of the alert. Hazards like broken eggs or a spilled bottle of ketchup could be swiftly cleaned up because the robot sent alerts to a manager’s dashboard.

“The manager could see a list of alerts and suggested employees to correct the problem,” said Owen. “This proof of concept is integrated with SAP SuccessFactors software so it showed details about those employees.”

Connected Data for Intelligent Insights

The dashboard included sales analytics by individual stores. Included in the display were sales actuals versus predictive trends analyses. All of this information was integrated with customer experience data, mapping satisfaction levels to factors like product availability, store cleanliness, and the on-site team.

“Companies can hang their own extra sensors on the robot, attaching RFID or barcode scanners to extend the capabilities based on their unique business demands,” said Owen. “For example, you could add temperature indicators to show the local temperature and look at trending products that come on sale when certain weather events happen.”

If robots can help retailers have cleaner stores stocked with the right products, it’s certain many more companies will put out the welcome mat for this next generation of machines.

Follow me: @smgaler