Kiva’s Robots Bring New Meaning to Movable Shelves

News coming across the wire yesterday from Kiva Systems in Woburn caught my eye. Not so much for the news itself, which is about a routine corporate partnership, but because I had just learned about the company’s incredibly cool little robots the night before.

Kiva is the best kind of startup: one built around soothing an ache rather than finding an application for a technology widget. The ache, in this case, is the hassle of order fulfillment in giant mail-order warehouses like those operated by Amazon or Staples. A typical order might call for five different books or CDs or pens stored in bins scattered across a vast warehouse. Rather than sending people to the bins, Kiva figured out how to bring the bins to the people—on top of cute orange robotic drive units that, somehow, remind me of the little motorized trolley that connected Mr. Rogers’ house to the Neighborhood of Make-Believe.

A warehouse equipped with Kiva’s fufillment systemWatching a Kiva-managed warehouse in action is an oh-my-gosh-how-clever-is-that moment. Scores of tall blue-plastic shelving units move across the floor in an elegant software-driven ballet, each one carried atop a robot that is partly autonomous (reading barcodes on the floor to stay oriented) and partly acting on instructions transmitted wirelessly from a central computer. The robots carefully avoid collisions and politely line up behind stations where human operators transfer the needed items from the mobile shelves into mailing containers. Then they move out of the way, taking shelves with low-demand items back to the far corners of the warehouse and keeping the high-demand items close by. (There’s a terrific Flash video of the whole process at Kiva’s site, but you need to register your e-mail address with the company to see it.)

In warehouses equipped with Kiva’s system, fulfillment agents can process three times as many orders per day, the company claims. A fleet of 150 Kiva robots already handles more than half of the products that pass through Staples’ 500,000-square-foot order-fulfillment facility in Chambersburg, Pennsylvania (featured in a nice Fast Company article in July). Today’s news is that Tompkins Associates, a consulting firm that helps big companies design and fine-tune their logistical operations, has put Kiva’s “Mobile Fulfillment System” into its Orlando, FL, Emerging Technology Center, where the company tests and demonstrates the latest supply-chain technologies.

Coincidentally, Kiva’s founder and CEO Mick Mountz was one of the panelists at an MIT Enterprise Forum October Innovation Series robotics event Wednesday night. The event starred Rod Brooks, the Panasonic Professor of Robotics at MIT, former director of the MIT Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Lab, and co-founder of iRobot (and Xconomist). Brooks made two points in his pre-panel keynote talk that caught my attention, and that also seem to apply directly to Kiva.

The first was that while you might expect that the most autonomous robots are also the most expensive, it’s actually the other way around. Robots like Sony’s Aibo robot dog and iRobot’s Roomba vacuum cleaner, which operate completely without human input, cost only a fraction as much as robots like Honda’s Asimo and iRobot’s Packbot that are remotely tele-operated (i.e. that require almost continuous human intervention to prevent disaster—an expensive proposition, technologically speaking).

The other point was that the biggest, most profitable business opportunities in the robotics industry will probably revolve around applications that benefit from Moore’s Law—Gordon Moore’s famous (and so far, accurate) prediction that the computing power of a microprocessor doubles every 18 to 24 months for a constant price. “If you find a way that an exponential will change the way you do robotics, there is a business model there,” Brooks said.

Kiva mobile shelving systemMountz impressed the forum audience with a video that hinted how the company might wind up in Brooks’s sweet spot—that is, by making systems that are autonomous, inexpensive, easy to improve, and extremely expandable. Kiva’s two-feet-high, three-feet-long robots and the associated control systems aren’t yet cheap; an operation like the one at Staples’ Chambersburg facility would cost $5 million to set up, the company says. But the technology is highly flexible. Warehouse managers can adapt to changes in operational realities, such as shifts in the types of products consumers are ordering, simply by reprogramming the control system. Adding capacity is as easy as bringing in more robot drive units. And it’s easy to imagine making the robots smarter—by adding RFID-tracking capabilities to their built-in barcode scanners, for instance.

The Enterprise Forum panel also included Chris Hofmeister, CTO of Brooks Automation in Chelmsford, which makes robots that handle silicon wafers inside the vacuum of semiconductor fabrication machines, and Debbie Theobald, CEO of Vecna Technologies, whose research lab in Cambridge contributed to the company’s remarkable Battlefield Extraction-Assist Robot. All of these companies are contributing to the amazing ferment in robotics technology in the Boston area; indeed, Brooks opined that “Boston is the cluster in robotics” today.

Given the number of robotics stories we’ve been running lately, we’re inclined to agree.

Addendum, February 24, 2008: Scott Kirsner at The Boston Globe has published a nice feature about Kiva Systems.

Wade Roush is a freelance science and technology journalist and the producer and host of the podcast Soonish. Follow @soonishpodcast

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