Walmart – the largest private employer in the U.S. – is deploying 19 autonomous forklifts across four high-technology distribution centers, in a move aimed at evaluating the impact on both associates and operational efficiency.

It’s another example of the retail giant ramping up its investment in artificial intelligence technology to keep a competitive edge over rivals. 

Associates previously have operated FoxBot autonomous forklifts, designed to fully automate the warehouse loading dock at the Brooksville, Florida distribution center as part of a 16-month proof of concept, according to distrubution center general manager Maurice Gray. 

The associates have been trained to operate these forklifts, which are manufactured by Fox Robotics.

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The new system, according to Gray, is “bolstering their skills and bettering their jobs while building our business.” 

The company said the autonomous forklifts complement the automated storage and retrieval system within our facility. That’s another reason why Walmart invested growth capital for a minority stake in Fox Robotics. 

Here’s how it will work: 

When the trucks arrive at the distribution center to get unloaded, the forklifts, using AI-powered machine vision and dynamic planning, will “accurately unload pallets and ferry them to be inducted into the automated storage and retrieval system,” which categorizes and stores goods, according to Gray. 

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Instead of unloading the pallets manually, Walmart associates will “become conductors – considering the best, most efficient way to unload trailers based on their experience,” Gray added. 

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A 26-year-old Walmart associate, Jose Molina, used to unload trucks manually butnow directs a FoxBot autonomous forklift, which has three times the same output, according to the company.

“That means he’s building our business, increasing our DC’s productivity, and saving his lower back,” Gray said. 

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