A Tale of Automation Across Walmart’s Fulfillment and Distribution Centers

IT professionals in front of a large whiteboard at Walmart Global Tech in India

“It’s very exciting, the way the company has changed our way of working to put technology to work, whether that’s software of the way we use our data or, increasingly, the way we use robotics in our business.”- Doug McMillon

There’s a strong sense of pride when you see your hard work translate into something tangible, something concrete.

I experienced that first-hand when I toured Walmart’s Fulfillment Centers (FCs) and Distribution Centers (DCs) in the U.S., where my team’s Platform solutions are powering critical supply chain automation efforts and redefining experiences for associates and customers alike.

As I stepped into the Walmart DC in Cleburne, Texas, the vastness of the warehouse floor felt like a blank canvas and almost symbolized the magnitude of the opportunity. Being there helped give me a sense of how automation could support our company’s mission to improve the lives of our associates and customers.

How Tech transforms Walmart’s FCs and DCs

There’s a Walmart store located within 10 miles of 90% of the U.S. population.1 Our approach in 2020 was to turn four stores into partial eCommerce hubs, the first-of-its-kind test of combining in-person and online shopping. We started ramping up the supply chain infrastructure by expanding high-tech Market Fulfillment Centers (MFCs) and building more technologically advanced DCs. These new hubs helped us overcome some of the challenges posed by the COVID-19 pandemic.

In the second half, the narrative shifted entirely to address the peak period of the Holiday season. Our core focus shifted on automating the processes at both FCs and DCs.

The Groundwork

Extensive research and planning went behind the automation of the FCs and DCs. For our Principal Product Manager of Supply Chain Fulfillment, Ashish Sharma, it all started in February 2019. Ashish attended a workshop held in Germany that led to zeroing in on 300-400 requirements to help formulate the solution for automating our extensive network of FCs and DCs.

What started as a series of discussions in January 2020 became more elaborate, leading the team to narrow down the list of development items. The discovery phase was followed by design, leading to mapping the insights into products. The development followed a very agile model, in which we worked iteratively. This was followed by end-to-end stress testing. The roadblock that we hit was the pandemic, due to which we had to move to virtual. In fact, during the pre-launch prep, the team was distributed across the globe. To balance out the efforts, the leadership team played a critical role.

We conducted the Functional Acceptance Testing followed by the User Acceptance Testing phase. We went live with the full automation solution in March 2021. The entire exercise helped us come up with a more unified user interface and additional capabilities to go along with the full software package.

A smiling group of nine Indian IT professionals

The Operations stakeholders, along with the Product and Industrial Engineering teams, came together to define the process and software blueprints. They had to dig into the details of how automation could drive value (e.g., by improving the fill rates and in-stock inventory across Walmart stores).

Modernizing the FCs and DCs

Walmart is building around 100 automated small fulfillment centers attached to existing stores in the next few years.2
Automation of the centers is a critical company initiative, which will ultimately help reap benefits in the next five to 10 years. To initiate the process, U.S. Omni Tech partnered with multiple automation and hardware vendors for different networks. We also built (and continue to build) in-house technology to support the vendors and the overall automation initiatives.

Flow racks filled with labeled brown boxes at a warehouse or Fulfillment Center

With automated processes already in use, the window into the future of supply chain technology is now open. Modernizing applications across the centers has resulted in positive, people-focused outcomes, such as improved productivity, a more efficient materials flow, and a safer operating environment for our associates.

The role of Walmart Control Services (WCS)

WCS is a warehouse control system that allows us to deploy new automation techniques across different automation systems within the supply chain network to seamlessly execute the handling of the actual operation.

This in-house tech was created using a modern tech stack centered on:

  • Simplicity
  • Stability
  • Scalability

The complete journey to FC and DC automation involved:

  • Initial Discovery: Making a list of existing DC operations and the required improvements for enhanced operational efficiency
  • Automation Needs: Lay out all the automation hardware needs such as Automated Storage and Retrieval Systems & other Material Handling Equipments (MHEs) that will be used by the site.
  • New Tech Stack: Design your Warehouse Management Platform & your Warehouse Control Systems to work across automation providers and warehouse formats.
A blue banner with the inset pictures of six women crossing their hands to form X symbol with the text ‘Women in Tech’

Tangible benefits

By automating our FCs and DCs, we aimed to process customer orders at lightning speed. This presented numerous benefits for the associates in these centers.

Through the combination of machinery and manpower, we were able to speed up picking and other time-consuming tasks. We could also implement sophisticated and mature technologies, such as image recognition and machine learning.

We could propel successful order fulfillment within hours after order placement and facilitated easier last-mile delivery. We saved time for our FC/DC associates who traditionally walk up to nine miles per day picking items from multiple floors of shelving spread out over thousands of square feet of space.

Several new supply chain jobs were created too, such as Control Technicians, Quality Audit Analysts, and Flow Managers in this process. Through all these conscious efforts, we were able to transform a manual, 12-step process to five steps, resulting in a 2X increase in storage capacity.

Open cargo boxes with the Walmart logo on a conveyor belt at a warehouse

The wrap

The new generation of automated FCs and DCs are extensively focused on people enablement. While robotics and machine learning have set new standards for the speed of fulfillment, we always emphasize that real people are still at the center of this important technological milestone.

Within two years, our significant automation initiatives have gone live and are running seamlessly across the Walmart U.S. network. For us, it was an incredible opportunity to collaborate with the teams who constantly innovate, ideate, and help churn out solutions consistent with Walmart’s DNA — improving our end customer experience and ultimately, helping people save money and live better.


1Walmart first-party data, Working as Fulfillment Centers, Walmart Stores are the Star of the Last Mile (2022, Feb. 8)

2The Wall Street Journal, Walmart Pushes New Delivery Services for a Post-Pandemic World (2022, Feb. 27)