High-tech bean-stockers invade Japanese supermarket

When she buys the groceries for the family evening meal these days, Ichiko Saito, a mother of three, is unwittingly participating in a sophisticated high-technology experiment.

Choosing a jar of jam or can of beans off the shelf, however, she does not realize her pioneering role.

Except for the multiscreen video and word processors alongside the food displays, there is nothing in the one-story Seiyu supermarket in suburban Nomidai to suggest it is different from any other.

But to the Seibu group, operating one of Japan's biggest supermarket and department store chains, Nomidai is ''the first mechatronic experimental store in the world.''

It is when she goes to the check-out counter with her daily purchases that Ichiko Saito unleashes the latest computer and robotic technology Japanese scientists can devise.

The check-out clerk passes each item, marked with a computer bar code, over a laser beam that registers the purchase both on the cash register and in the store's central computer.

At the end of the day, Seiyu in an instant knows exactly how many jars of jam , slices of ham, or cartons of milk have been sold.

The moment the store's doors close at 7 p.m., the machines take over. Robots load replacement stock onto automated trolleys that trundle quietly around the alleyways to the correct delivery points.

At present, humans actually put the stock on the shelves because, a store spokesman explains, ''Robots cannot yet spot damaged stock and have no ability to set up displays.''

The store cost Seibu almost $4.5 million, of which 60 percent was spent on the robots and computers. Automation has enabled the company to cut the number of employees by 20 percent, to only 23 workers. But that was not the main consideration, the spokesman says.

''We wanted to free our staff from laborious and simple manual tasks so they could spend more time on the customers. We wanted to try and recreate the friendly atmosphere of the corner store of old.

''Everyone can now concentrate on developing new face-to-face services, like providing advice to customers on recipes for the evening family meal, health matters, and even on their tax problems,'' he said.

Seiyu president Seiji Tsutsumi admits the Nomidai store will not be profitable by itself. But it is a proving ground for the technology the company hopes to sell to others. It has attracted over 10,000 visitors since it opened last October, and the first orders for robots have just been received from other companies.

Nomidai actually is a prototype for a full-fledged automated store Seibu plans to build in Tsukuba Science City, north of Tokyo, in 1985 to coincide with a high technology international exposition scheduled then.

Apart from the current hauling and handle robots, machines are being devised for labeling products and even parking cars.

As with the Nomidai store, the Tsukuba store will utilize new optical fiber communications technology for the most sophisticated theft and fire monitoring systems. It will also have detection devices to maintain a germ-free atmosphere in the food handling section and temperature adjustment.

The Tsukuba store will be linked with the surrounding community by cable television to provide information on its products and community life. This, a Seibu official stresses, will create more human contact, not less.

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