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Picky Robots Grease the Wheels of e-Commerce

Ned Smith

There's absolutely nothing cute or anthropomorphic about the robots that are the worker bees of Kiva Systems' automated order fulfillment systems. These squat, wheeled robotic drive units, which drone wordlessly up, down and across warehouse floors, look like flat versions of R2D2 in Star Wars.

They can't read your thoughts, but they can faultlessly deliver the right item to the right place at the right time. While they have neither, they're the labor-saving arms and legs for warehouse packers in the fulfillment departments of companies such as Zappos and Staples.  They make sure you get the goods you order. And they save money for e-comerce companies and their customers by reducing labor costs and incorrectly fulfilled orders and speeding up the fulfillment process.

They're a major force bringing e-commerce order fulfillment out of the darks age of traditional pick, pack and ship operations. The Kiva bots replace the human workers who roamed warehouse aisles in pre-automated days to pick items from shelves or pallets and bring them to centrally located packers for boxing and shipping. 

The human factor

Packaging and shipping can be a time- and labor-intensive process.

Idle packers are the weak link in warehouses using manual pickers. They can spend 60 to 70 percent of their time waiting for a picker to arrive.

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"We took that number to zero," Mick Mountz, Kiva's CEO and founder, told BusinessNewsDaily. "We allow workers to do 100 percent productive work."

The company estimates that a human packer can fill three times as many orders when Kiva bots are doing the picking.

How it works

The Kiva bot system, produced by a 200-person company located in North Reading, Mass., replaces the pickers with battery-powered bots that are guided by a computerized control system.  They follow a grid system of 2D bar codes on the floor to navigate their way to mobile pods or shelves containing the desired inventory.

When the bot reaches the correct location on the warehouse floor, it positions itself beneath a pod and lifts it from the ground in a corkscrew action. The unit is then guided to a human packer on the periphery of the floor who takes the process over from there. The pod then picks up a pod from a previous delivery, replaces it on the floor by reversing the corkscrew action and is freed for another mission.  It's a just-in-time system.

These bots are no lightweights; they are capable of lifting a 1,000-pound pallet and larger models can hoist pallets as large as 3,000 pounds. The bots are designed in-house.

They also have smarts. When their power begins to run down, they take themselves out of service and dock at a recharging station much like a Roomba robot vacuum cleaner does in your home.

Traffic control

The host control software guiding the bots acts like an air traffic controller, Mountz said. Like data packets beginning forwarded on the Internet by the most direct route, the software is able to steer the bots to and from their destinations using the quickest route while avoiding conflict or collision with other bots.

It's a very scalable system . In a large warehouse, there can be as many as a thousand bots gliding the aisles fetching and retrieving goods. Mountz believes it's possible for 3,000 to 5,000 robots to peacefully coexist as they thread their separate ways across acres of cavernous warehouse space.

"The good news is that nobody is sleeping in the tower while the robots are running around," Mountz said.

There is no danger that the system will run amuck and inundate packers with more than they can handle a la the classic "I Love Lucy" TV sketch in which Lucy and her pal Ethel are overwhelmed when wrapping candy in a chocolate factory.

The Kiva system is self-leveling and adjusts bot deliveries to the actual work flow, Mountz said.

"We keep humans in the loop," he said.

Inventory is a moveable feast

With the Kiva system, the days of the static, unchanging location of inventory is history. The pods move around because the inventory sorts itself by analyzing the popularity of items. The system is also self-organizing in terms of routing.

"If you went into a Kiva warehouse, you wouldn't be able to find anything," Mountz said.

The obvious application for the Kiva system is for e-commerce companies with extensive and vast warehouses, particularly ones that fulfill orders of several different items, known as split-case packing. Prior to Kiva, there was no system designed to perform that function.

"That's where Kiva filled a vacuum," Mountz said.

Scalable system

But because Kiva is such a scalable system, it can make sense for smaller organizations as well. A robotic solution can pay off when a company has as few as two pick employees working eight hours a day.

"If you have two shifts, it's time to look at automation," Mountz said.

The company doesn't sell individual bots, Mountz said, but provides a complete system.  A basic package order fulfillment system that supports small to medium businesses (SMBs) starts at around $1.5 million, he said.

One of Kiva's SMB success stories is in Acumen Brands, a growing e-commerce company in northwest Arkansas that serves a number of niche markets, including medical professional apparel, outdoor adventuring equipment, work boots and protective apparel, as well as baby clothing, decor and supplies. When they automated their operations with a Kiva system, the company's five-person fulfillment team was able to process in one day what used to take them a week to complete.

The company, which deploys a fleet of 20 bots, has grown from 4 employees to 53 in the last year.

"They come to us with a picking challenge," Mountz said. "Customers are using Kiva to change the game in e-commerce delivery."


Reach BusinessNewsDaily senior writer Ned Smith at Follow him on Twitter @nedbsmith.

Ned Smith Member
<p>Ned was senior writer at Sweeney Vesty, an international consulting firm, and was Vice President of communications for iQuest Analytics. Before that, he has been a web editor and managed the Internet and intranet sites for Citizens Communications. He began his journalism career as a police reporter with the Roanoke (Va.) Times, and was managing editor of American Way magazine and senior editor of Us. He was a Captain in the U.S. Air Force and held&nbsp;a masters in journalism from the University of Arizona.</p>