If you're short a drill bit in the middle of a project, you don't want to have to wait for it to be delivered tomorrow. So it's no surprise the two major players in home improvement retail have made last-mile delivery a priority, with same-day delivery ostensibly near the top of the to-do list.
Lowe's is one of a handful of retailers on board to try out FedEx's first autonomous delivery robot — a fast-moving, stair-climbing bot resembling a mini fridge on wheels. Though not really refrigerated, the robot is battery-powered and uses the same technology at work in autonomous vehicles to navigate unpaved surfaces and curbs.
This summer, Lowe's will test the bots in several unnamed markets, and FedEx will learn more about the needs of the Lowe's customer and presumably get practice operating in the unpredictable environment of a construction site. Lowe's will look to discover what impact — cost and operational — robots can have on the ever-important last mile of its supply chain.
Lowe's puts robots on the job
Home improvement retailers have two main customer sets: the do-it-yourself-er and the professional. Lowe's stores have their own small flatbed fleets for large scale deliveries to professionals, but Lowe's Executive Vice President of Supply Chain Don Frieson is particularly excited about putting FedEx's robot, which cannot deliver lumber or siding, to the test delivering to professionals too.
"With this type of delivery, it’s not about large goods. This delivery will be things like saw blades, drill bits, 5-gallon drums of paint — things that perhaps they would have runners in the past to go pick up," Frieson told Supply Chain Dive in an interview.
The results of the Lowe's pilot will indicate if these robots prove to be as reliable outside as they are in a warehouse or manufacturing setting.
"Think about terrain and mapping to job sites, which is drastically different than mapping to a roadway or a sidewalk. So the ability for this thing to go through water, the ability to navigate gravel or stone, the ability to navigate up a hill, is pretty interesting stuff," Frieson said.
Whereas most other delivery robots currently practicing their craft, such as Starship Technologies or Amazon's Scout, are low to the ground, FedEx's robot is more upright with an agile base mechanism that offers greater flexibility. The machine weighs 250 to 300 lbs according to Frieson, compared to Starship's less than 100 lbs, suggesting more power (and less threat of theft).
"It's a pretty robust piece of machinery," said Frieson, who added he had not reviewed the specks of the other delivery robots on the market.
Are robots the future of last-mile delivery?
Retailers as large as Home Depot and Lowe's will likely never be able to rely on just one solution for same-day delivery, nor the broader category of last-mile delivery.
"I would assume that in five years you'll have a few big players shake out, but I think you'll always have choices," Frieson said.
Far more developed than robotic delivery efforts are crowdsourced delivery providers. Home Depot works with both Roadie and Deliv, for example.
Roadie founder Marc Gorlin told Supply Chain Dive in a February interview that the human element in the equation is a source of value and not a complication. Roadie's algorithms match requested deliveries to drivers already near the pickup and, ideally, going in the direction of the drop-off so drivers often live or work near their deliveries.
Since Roadie drivers are theoretically already coming from at or near the store from which they are delivering an item, in some cases they have knowledge of the item itself. Gorlin described contractors giving DIY-ers tips and tricks in what he called "beautiful collisions of humanity."
Home Depot is clearly a fan of the model since it went so far as to invest in Roadie's most recent funding round earlier this year.
"The ability for this thing to go through water, the ability to navigate gravel or stone, the ability to navigate up a hill, is pretty interesting stuff."
Executive Vice President of Supply Chain, Lowe's
The question is whether human crowdsourced models will continue to prevail, or whether robotic delivery will take over the same-day space.
Where robots win out for sure is on sustainability (they run on batteries) and maybe in the long run, price. Freison said he has seen high-level cost models for FedEx's robot, but the pilot will help firm up existing estimates.
Just as experts contend that warehouse robots will continue to work alongside human workers, Frieson predicts last-mile delivery will not see a complete robotic takeover any time soon.
Correction: In a previous version, Lowe's crowd-sourced delivery partners were misstated.