With new upgrades, Kiva Systems robots, the productivity-boosting, pick-and-pull helpers at the warehouses of Diapers.com, Walgreens, Gilt Groupe, and many others, are working in pairs—and in all three dimensions. And they're answering a huge new e-commerce demand.
"Kiva already proved what happens when companies pair humans with robots," Kiva Systems CEO and founder Mick Mountz tells Fast Company. "Now we're showing what happens when robots work with robots."
Kiva made a name for itself with bots that have doubled or even quadrupled productivity for companies moving at the speed of web orders, filling a massive long-tail array of products. They hum along an invisible electronic track in warehouses, slip underneath specialized, four-faced, podlike shelves of products as light as diapers or as heavy as bottled water (bots lift pods up to 3,000 pounds). Then they deliver goods from the deep recesses of cavernous storage spaces to humans, who finish the jobs. All the while, they're crunching numbers, paying attention to which products they move most, and organizing the warehouses with hot items up front, last season's leftovers in back. "They're sorting by popularity. And they're dynamic and adaptive," Mountz says of his massive mechanical worker bees.
After a night or two docked to servers, these bots are getting software upgrades—dubbed Enhanced High-Density Storage Option—that lets them organize product pods on multiple levels, using lifts to put less-popular stock not only on back shelves, but on high levels. "What's new is now product can be organized on multiple levels," Mountz says.
[See this in action on a single level in the heat map animation below: Packing stations, the robot destinations, are on the outer rim; orange or red colors represent the hottest selling items.]
Even more fascinating, the bots are buddying up.
Before, Kiva movers could only work with stacks of shelves that were two layers deep—two-by-two, or two-by-six, or two-by-eight, but never three-by-four or more. The single bot had to be able to grab an outside shelf. But with the upgrade, the bots seeking inner shelves bring along a helper, which moves the outside shelf and replaces it when its buddy has finished digging out the inside shelf.
"It's the same bots, same pods, same stations," Mountz says. "But there's 15% to 25% more storage [in a typical warehouse] with the new upgrades." It's a big deal for fast-growing e-commerce companies that have to keep large stocks for fast-growing business, but don't always have the luxury of floor space.
Kiva is a private company and doesn't publicly disclose revenues, but Mountz says it saw a 100% increase in bookings in 2010, 80% of which have come from e-commerce companies seeking robo-packages that range in price from $1 million-$2 million for starter kits, and $10 million-$20 million for massive packages like the 1,000-strong bot army at a Walgreens warehouse in central Illinois.
In 2010, Kiva and Diapers.com also discovered a brand new way to put Kiva Systems to work: As movers not just of products to their human packers in a warehouse, but of entire warehouse contents to entirely new warehouses miles way. Facing a rapid increase in business, Diapers.com relocated in 2010 to a new warehouse that was 50% bigger but a town away from its old digs. And the move had to happen in 36 hours. So humans wrapped Kiva Systems pods in a light shrink wrap, and the robots went to work as movers, depositing the pods at bays, where 25 trucks whisked them away. Once at the new location, the robots set up the new floorplan. The coolest part: Kiva documented the whole thing in time-lapse video.