The robots were born out of the Lowe's Innovation Lab, an
experimental department that works with science-fiction writers
and startups to solve consumer problems with technology.
"We believed that in the near future -- in the next five years,
10 years -- someone was going to come out with a retail operational
robot and that was going to change retail," said Kyle Nel,
executive director of Lowe's Innovation Lab. "So we figured, why
don't we do it?"
Like all Lowe's Innovation Labs projects, the robots started
with a comic book that imagined a way to ease customer
In big, warehouse-style stores, like Lowe's, customers may
wander for some time before they actually find what they need.
Often, people either can't immediately find a sales associate to
help them, or don't want to ask for help. The latter barrier is
especially true for non-native English speakers, who fear they will
"Home improvement is a very high involvement thing," said Mr.
Nel. "So having that ability to ask questions in your native
language every time, to a robot, makes the expectation that every
time you'll have the same high quality experience."
The robot's primary goal is to improve in-store navigation, but
it has a number of other features as well. For example, its
telepresence allows shoppers to connect with off-site experts who
can consult on projects.
"Having a mobile computing station with 3D scanning
capabilities, and many other things, clearly opens up a whole new
realm of possibilities of what we can do to help our customers and
our associates," said Mr. Nel.
Lowe's worked with Singularity University and a startup, Fellow
Robots, to bring the project to life. It went from comic book to
completion in less than a year. That's less time than it took the
Lab to complete its first project, Holoroom, which is a
home-improvement simulator with 3D and augmented reality
"We took a robotic startup and we shared our vision with them,"
said Mr. Nel. "We worked on the concept and the functionality and
even incorporated some of our Holoroom technology into the robot to
make it something that no one, to my knowledge, [is] talking about
or doing ... at this scale."
But don't expect to see the robots in Lowe's stores just yet.
The retailer plans to start testing before the holidays at a
Lowe's-owned Orchard Supply Hardware store in San Jose. There are
no additional roll out plans as of now. The company wants to test
the robots in the real world to see how they interact with people
before expanding to other stores.
"The big unknown is the human component," said Mr. Nel. "We have
the technology that works really well. But there's some basic
questions that there's just no way to answer until you actually
There's also a learning curve for Lowe's employees, who need to
get used to working with their new artificially intelligent
colleagues. Mr. Nel said the robots fill a void that Lowe's
employees aren't able to -- knowing where every piece of inventory
is at all times. It also frees them up to do other work, like
helping customers plan home improvement projects, he added. Rather
than replacing workers, the robots will add a new element to Lowe's
customer service team.
"What our sales associates are amazing at doing and what they
love spending time on are consulting and helping customers with
their projects and solving their problems," said Mr. Nel. "We can
let the robots answer questions like, 'where are the hammers?'"
Mr. Nel declined to comment on the budget for the project or how
much it will costs to add robots to stores. But he said to expect
more projects like this from Lowe's.
"We're in the innovation space to stay," said Mr. Nel. "And
we're going to continue to come out with things that are wilder and