Kiva’s Robots Hit Their Stride…er, Slide

Kiva Systems may be winning its battle against the science-fiction robots.

The Woburn, MA, company is a newcomer to a hidebound business. It builds “mobile fulfillment systems” that are overturning all the traditions of warehousing by making the shelves move around, rather than the people. The moving is done by squat wheeled robots that maneuver under the shelves, pick them up, and trundle them over to a person at a picking station, who grabs whatever items are needed to fulfill the next order and boxes them up to be shipped to a retail store or a mail-order customer.

It’s amazing to watch dozens of these little orange robots working in concert, lifting and spinning and scooting without once colliding or spilling anything. (For a lighthearted look at Kiva’s system in action, see this YouTube video of the robots dancing the Nutcracker ballet.) But warehousing is a centuries-old industry in which the last major innovation was the forklift. Convincing a warehouse manager that he should hire a fleet of R2-D2s to staff his next facility is a tough sell.

Robot’s Eye View of the Kiva Warehouse Floor“If you just go to the people who run these factories and warehouses and say ‘We’re going to have a bunch of robots help your workers,’ they are going to say ‘Obviously this is an East Coast pointy-head who doesn’t understand what a real warehouse is like,” says Mitch Rosenberg, Kiva’s vice president of marketing. To them, the word “robot” is likely to evoke visions of Robbie the Robot from Lost in Space. But show these same people a Kiva warehouse in action, Rosenberg says, and they start to understand the practical potential, he says—including potential productivity increases on the order of 200 to 300 percent.

There’s certainly room for improvement in an industry where most pick workers spend hours each day walking up and down miles of warehouse aisles. This isn’t a terribly efficient process, as online grocer Webvan learned the hard way. After raising some $800 million in venture capital, the onetime dot-com darling went bust in 2001 because—among other things—it never found a low-cost way to fulfill orders.

After all, if every customer’s order sends a pick worker scurrying around a warehouse just as if they were at the supermarket, most of the fabled efficiencies of Internet-based commerce shrivel away. “When you go grocery shopping, what percentage of the time are you actually putting what you’re looking for into your basket?” asks Rosenberg. “Most of the time you’re just walking and waiting to encounter it.”

It’s recognizing and grabbing items that supermarket shoppers—and warehouse stock-pickers—are really good at. Webvan executive Mick Mountz realized that if he could somehow make the bins full of stock come to the pick workers, rather than sending the workers to the bins, the humans in a warehouse would be able to spend more of their time being smart and less just walking around.

The idea came too late to save Webvan. But after the company folded, Mountz went enlisted Raffaello D’Andrea, an expert on automatic controls at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology, and Peter Wurman, a computer scientist at North Carolina State University, to help him put the concept into action. The result was Distrobot, founded in 2003. (The company changed its name to Kiva Systems in 2005.)

A Kiva Robot Spins Under its Shelf, Lowering it to the GroundThe system Wurman, D’Andrea, and CEO Mountz have now spent five years perfecting is as much about software as it is about robots. A master inventory database knows which shelves in a warehouse hold which items. When an order comes in at the Staples warehouse for a box of green pens and a ream of paper, the system wirelessly instructs two robots to find the appropriate shelves, pick them up (a platform atop a large screw lifts up the shelf a couple of inches as the robot spins underneath), and carry them to a designated stock-picking station.

If both units arrive at the same time, the system tells one robot to wait until the other moves out of the way. The robots have infrared sensors to warn of nearby objects—but collisions are unheard of, because the units are continually reporting their positions to the master system. They keep track of their own locations by watching for small bar code stickers attached to the warehouse floor.

At the station, a laser pointer shows the stock-picker where to look for the green pens or the paper. The worker grabs the needed item out of the indicated bin, places it into a box, and punches a button to let the system know the action is done. When the whole order is assembled, the box coasts off to the … Next Page »

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Wade Roush is the producer and host of the podcast Soonish and a contributing editor at Xconomy. Follow @soonishpodcast

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