Kiva’s Robots Hit Their Stride…er, Slide

4/21/08Follow @wroush

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loading dock on conveyor belts—or, in some cases, is carried there by other robots. Meanwhile, the system keeps track of which shelves are running low on supplies, and sends robots to carry them to replenishment stations as needed.

Rosenberg let me play stock-picker for a few minutes when I visited Kiva’s test warehouse a couple of weeks ago, and the process is fast-moving, like a video game. “Fifty percent of our customers use videos of Kiva in action in their recruitment videos that they put on local cable,” Rosenberg says. “People who are pick workers from other warehouses look at this and say ‘That looks a lot more relaxing and fun than running up and down those rows.’”

Kiva Systems LogoBut when logistics managers responsible for equipping new warehouses first look at Kiva’s system, says Rosenberg, they tend to have a different reaction: shock. “The biggest challenge is that our system doesn’t look like anything they’ve ever seen,” he says. To head off misperceptions, Kiva engineers and salespeople try to downplay the fact that the company builds robots at all, frequently calling them “mobile drive units” instead. And during my visit Rosenberg went out of his way to draw a distinction between Kiva and other robot makers, especially Burlington, MA-based iRobot.

Unquestionably the Boston region’s best-known robotics company, iRobot sells gadgets that are famous for doing things, more or less autonomously: mopping and vacuuming floors, cleaning gutters and swimming pools, climbing over rubble piles and scouting out explosive devices in Iraq. Kiva’s robots, by contrast, work in groups of hundreds, almost like a hive of ants or bees; the individual robots have very little intelligence and no initiative.

“I describe it a parallel processing system for material,” says Rosenberg. “Our robots are just another piece of that system. That’s very different from the iRobot perspective, which is “These are rrrrobots!”

A Kiva Robot Approaches the Pick StationGradually, Kiva is winning supporters in the material handling and logistics industry. Zappos.com announced in February that it’s installing a Kiva system at its Shepherdsville, KY, warehouse. More than 5 percent of all stock at Staples passes through a Kiva fulfillment system in Chambersburg, PA. Walgreens is ramping up its own Kiva-robot-run facilities, and Rosenberg says his firm has several other customers it’s not allowed to name. (Warehousing efficiency “is a subject of paramount strategic importance” to big retailers and e-commerce companies, he explains. “If you know that your competitor has a weakness in distribution, you know how to kill them.”) And today Kiva announced it has shipped its 1000th robot—I mean drive unit.

Kiva—which has raised more than $18 million in venture capital, mainly from Boston’s Bain Capital Ventures—has the capacity to build about 2,000 drive units per year from its Woburn facility. And if it can keep evading the robotics label, it may just get the opportunity to do so. “This isn’t a science experiment,” Rosenberg says. “We do real work here.”

Wade Roush is a contributing editor at Xconomy. Follow @wroush

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