The beauty of our system,” Raffaello D'Andrea says as he paces across the warehouse, ”is that you don't have to walk over to the shelves to get things--the shelves come to you.” With that, he motions toward some 200 blue plastic racks sitting at the center of the building. A mechanical whir fills the room. And then the robots appear.
Two dozen squat machines, like orange suitcases on wheels, scurry on the floor. They park underneath the man-high racks and start pirouetting; the spinning is part of the mechanism that jacks the racks off the ground. One robot hauls shelves with 12-packs of Mountain Dew; another carries bottles of Redken shampoo. They move along straight lines and make 90-degree turns, maneuvering just 15 centimeters from each other. It's a bit like Pac-Man.
This is the demonstration facility of Kiva Systems, a start-up in Woburn, Mass., just north of Boston, that wants to reinvent the centuries-old warehouse business. Kiva's idea is simple: by making inventory items come to the warehouse workers rather than vice versa, you can fulfill orders faster. A computer cluster keeps track of all robots and racks on the floor, and resource-allocation algorithms efficiently orchestrate their movement.
”When you see these things moving, you think, ’Oh my goodness, they're going to hit,' ” D'Andrea says. ”But of course they never do.”
D'Andrea should know. He wrote the robots' control algorithm. An engineering professor formerly at Cornell University and now at ETH, the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology, in Zurich, he joined Kiva after meeting Mick Mountz, a graduate of MIT and the Harvard Business School, who conceived the idea of using mobile robots to manage inventory. The third founder is Peter Wurman, an expert in multiagent systems and a former professor of computer science at North Carolina State University, in Raleigh.
Raff, Mick, and Pete, as they're known, form a triumvirate of sorts. D'Andrea and Wurman, who are called engineering fellows, oversee system architecture and algorithm development; Mountz, the CEO, drives the business. ”They're a well-oiled machine,” says one engineer at the company.
After four years perfecting its system, Kiva now faces the challenge of convincing potential customers to switch from conventional warehouse technologies to a fleet of mobile robots. Today's most automated distribution centers rely on vast mazes of conveyor belts, chutes, and carousels. Human operators stand along the conveyors, near inventory shelves, grabbing products and putting them into boxes or totes rolling past them. It's the assembly-line approach that most warehouse managers are used to, and it hasn't changed much in the past 100 years. In fact, for many of them the idea of handing over their inventories to robots is a big departure, if not a crazy proposition.
”Kiva has an inherent degree of flexibility that a lot of the more traditional storage and picking technologies don't,” says William L. Vincent, a principal with Tompkins Associates, a supply-chain-technology consultancy in Orlando, Fla. ”But many customers are scared of the latest whiz-bang toys and prefer to wait until they get a little bit more history.”
Maybe that's one reason Kiva avoids the label of ”robotics company.” ”We invented a solution for fulfillment,” Mountz insists. He says that the Internet has made shopping effortless for consumers and now it's time for the back end to catch up. Kiva claims that its system makes it easier to set up and manage a warehouse and that it can boost order-fulfillment speed to three times that of conveyor-based operations. ”We turned what is normally a serial process into a massively parallel process,” he says.