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Bots boost productivity

No human hands needed.


October 9, 2012
by Matt Powell, Assistant Editor

Manufacturers are always looking for ways to cut costs while enhancing productivity.

For those with lots of materials that need to be moved on shop floors and in distribution centres (DC), a Boston company’s footstool-sized mini-robots (or “bots”) will get the job done.

Kiva Systems, a material handling technology outfit founded in 2003 with revenues of more than $100 million and a workforce of 240, has developed uber-cool, Roomba-like Kiva bots that scoot around shop floors and DCs to pick and place materials and fulfill orders for heavy-hitting customers such as the Gap, Staples and Crate and Barrell.

The bots apply “distributed intelligence” using material handling equipment and software to complete a goods-to-man warehouse automation system.

Now on the third generation, Kiva’s little helpers have had such an impact on the market that they attracted the attention of Amazon.com, which acquired Kiva Systems for $775 million. The deal has ruffled the feathers of a few supply chain experts, though. They suggest Amazon acquired Kiva to keep the technology out of its competition’s hands, according to an article by PLANT’s sister magazine, MM&D (Materials Management & Distribution – www.canadianmanufacturing.com/distribution-and-transportation/news/amazon-buys-kiva-systems-58550).

Working wirelessly
The little orange robots, which are assembled in the US, are offered in two models, and named according to their lift capacity – DU1000 and DU3000 – each outfitted with wireless communication to accept orders on the floor without any physical human interaction. The bots, however, aren’t the only pieces in the system.

Shelving units called pods collaborate with the bots along individually designed materials supply chains, coordinated by a pathway system of bi-directional bar code stickers on the floor that tell the robots where to go when they’re fed an order. Bringing them all together is a collection of workstations, wireless networks and a server-based back-end that communicates between the software and the robots roaming the floor. The benefit, aside from the streamlined pick and grab process, is the elimination of bulky and expensive conveyor systems, and fewer human material handlers.

Kiva says the system doubles the output per worker over other solutions and cuts order cycle times to as low as 15 minutes. Amazon credits the Kiva system with doubling productivity and cutting energy consumption in half at its Zappos distribution centre, an online apparel retailer it acquired in 2009.

But this ease of use comes with a fairly hefty price-tag. A system that requires a fleet of more than a thousand robots can cost up to $20 million, which includes the six months of planning, simulated modelling, testing and logistics manager training required to run it all smoothly. A start-up kit sells for about $2 million.
The company has focused more on

e-commerce and retail customers, but now has eyes on manufacturers looking to better manage inventory processes and order fulfillment operations.

Check out this link for a video of the bots in action: http://www.kivasystems.com/solutions/vertical-storage.

Comments? E-mail mpowell@plant.ca.
This article appears in the September 2012 edition of PLANT.