Barcodes and laser scanners may have made life easier for store cashiers, but the next evolution in checkout technology could put them out of a job. In Osaka, Japan, a Lawson convenience store, through a partnership with Panasonic, demonstrated a new checkout system that scans groceries, tallies up the bill, and bags the items without human intervention.
They may not be raking in the big bucks, but human staff still cost money and in a tight economy or in countries like Japan with aging populations and shrinking workforces, there's an ever greater pressure to automate jobs that no one would have dreamed of handing over to robots a generation ago. Most stores already rely heavily on bar codes and computers to ring up sales, keep track of inventory, reorder goods, and make sure perishable items are removed from shelves.
Lawson and Panasonic want to take this trend a step further with Regi-Robo, an automated check-out system that is intended to not only drive down costs, but also make shops more efficient and, hopefully, more enjoyable for the customer.
The key to Regi-Robo is RFID tags, which for the demonstration were attached to every item in the store. Panasonic says that if the system went into general use, the tags would be added at point of manufacture, much as bar codes are now.
As the customer selects their products, they're placed in a special "Smart Basket." At checkout, the basket is placed in a special slot and the bottom of the basket slides open to allow the contents to be lowered into a plastic bag below. The tags are then scanned, and the total bill is added up and presented to the customer on a screen, where they can pay electronically. Once payment is made, the groceries rise out of the hole in the plastic bag, ready to be carried away. Meanwhile, the system updates the store inventory.
Regi-Robo got its public outing at the experimental Lawson Panasonic-Mae store in Osaka from December 12, 2016 to February 20, 2017 as part of a project supported by Japan's Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry.
It's all very efficient, but the system won't chat about the weather while bagging your purchases or offer to carry them out to your car.
The video below shows Regi-Robo in action.