When Amazon subsidiary Quidsi launched online pet store Wag.com last year, offering free one- or two-day shipping on all orders over $49, there was no snickering Pets.com puppet in sight. Soon thereafter, sister site Soap.com started selling groceries (free shipping if you spend $39!)—and no one made a peep about notorious dotcom grocery bust Webvan. One major reason was Kiva Systems’ fleet of autonomous robots, which are infiltrating e-commerce warehouses everywhere and can pick, pack, and ship anything sold online faster and cheaper than ever.
Kiva became profitable in 2011 after it added a record 24 customers, including Toys "R" Us and Timberland, more than doubling revenue for the second year in a row. (The private company won't release revenue figures, but a typical client order averages $4 million to $6 million.) "Mobile robots and shelves can store, move, and sort the inventory and then come to the pieceworker," says CEO Mick Mountz, who learned his lesson after designing the inefficient warehouses that caused Webvan to spend $1 to ship an 89-cent can of soup. "Kiva transforms inventory atoms into bits of information, and we run algorithms on that data and organize it in much the same way that Google sorts web pages." These efficiencies let robots gather goods within minutes of an order; workers can then ship up to four times more packages in an hour. The robots' success has earned them more responsibility. This past year, Kiva taught them to move cardboard boxes to the trash compactor and to assist gift-wrapping crews. No word yet on whether Mountz is adding a robot finger to help tie the bows.
Illustration by Jim Stoten