KIVA Robots Continue to Conquer Warehouses

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KIVA's warehouse robot is set to become an industry standard. Photo: Joshua Dalsimer

KIVA's warehouse robot is set to become an industry standard. Photo: Joshua Dalsimer

Blue-collar robots don’t really get the press they deserve. These dedicated, well designed, and efficient workers provide unparalleled improvements in almost every major industry. Let’s face it, though, they are rarely photogenic. Singularity Hub has covered a lot of the amazing human-like robots out there. Today, let’s take a look at one of the most promising blue-collar bots: KIVA Systems’ distribution center robots. These warehouse workhorses provide a new way of sorting, storing, and shipping products. Quiet Logistics, a third party distribution center, just opened a KIVA exclusive warehouse in Andover, Massachusetts. With over a 1000 of these robots already in use, the promise of robotized warehouses as a standard is well on its way.

The KIVA bots are short squat orange lifters that glide under storage racks, lifting and moving them where they need to go. They’re guided by a very simple grid of stickers attached to the floor. Wifi communications between bots and redundant clusters of servers keep robots from colliding on the grid. No easy task considering that a single warehousing company could use up to 500 of the little orange lifters.

With KIVA, the racks are brought to the human workers and not the other way around. This system eliminates the need for endless walking. Instead of having many workers work on the same order, the KIVA system allows for a single touch approach. With fewer hands used on each order, productivity increases, errors decrease and the work process is streamlined. Zappos (a KIVA customer) claims order to ship times of as little as 12 minutes.

Check out this great Boston.com video highlighting the KIVA system:

It’s really the combination of software and robots that makes the KIVA system so promising. With adaptive storage, random access to workers, quick reorganization, and removing the need to batch, we are seeing a truly new approach to the traditional warehouse. That Gap, Zappos, Staples, have all converted at least part of their warehouses to KIVA shows the industry’s willingness to adapt to the better technology. Quiet Logistics KIVA-only warehouse is already serving Music Parts Plus, a major online retailer.

Never colliding, and never off duty, the KIVA robots work in a full-scale warehouse, moving racks to be processed by humans.

Never colliding, and never off duty, the KIVA robots work in a full-scale warehouse, moving racks to be processed by humans.

Man and Bot – the next great buddy movie

As remarkable as KIVA’s robots are, I think they are just one indication of a developing paradigm. Human laborers are an integral (and highly valued) part of the warehouse system. KIVA bots move the racks, but human hands move and scan items. This sort of human-robot integration highlights how separating tasks into robot-friendly and human-friendly steps is an ideal path to efficiency. Creating human-like robots is a complicated and difficult task. Although there have been great leaps forward in this field recently, it may take many years for it to be cost efficient to replace all human laborers with equivalent robots.

I think the KIVA human-robot interaction provides a better solution. In all fields of manual robotic use (manufacture, warfare, shipping, transportation, medicine, etc) we may benefit from a planned and dedicated approach that seeks to maximize efficiency by dividing tasks in a systematic way between humans and machines. We are already experimenting with such an approach, just look at the auto-industry, or think about how many high-tech instruments are integral to your doctor’s office.

Human-robot teamwork may only be a temporary solution (eventually robots may replace all human laborers in manual fields), but for ten or twenty years it could provide the best approach to including robots in the workforce without eliminating the human jobs on which many economies depend. Proponents of a robotic workforce often claim that new jobs will open up in service and consulting sectors. Some singularity enthusiasts contend that we ourselves will merge with that robotic workforce anyway. In either case, fostering robot-human cooperation is a great way to gently transition from our current system to our eventual one (whatever form it may take).

The cooperation is seemingly already building between man and machine in many of the KIVA warehouses. Mitch Rosenberg, VP of Marketing at KIVA, says that human workers are giving name tags and other identifying marks to their favorite robots. At some companies, “the robots” send you a birthday card each year. We have a hard time, it seems, avoiding anthropomorphizing and adopting robots as pets. And that’s okay. They may not be cute, but blue-collar bots are a working man’s best friend.

Here’s two videos for you, one goes into the KIVA system in greater depth and the other…well, it’s the brainchild of an intern, enjoy:

Discussion — 9 Responses

  • Nick May 8, 2009 on 5:59 pm

    The more we treat them as pets, friends and what-not, the less likely a Terminator or Matrix-like scenario will unfold (well, the stupid human-fusion powering robots will never unfold because its, well, stupid. i’m talking the enslavement issue). It’s when we start taking them for granted and abusing them that uprisings happen. Just like they do in human populations. If we build them to be like us, they will be – both the good and the bad.

    I’d also like to point out that building humanoid robots to walk down the aisles and pull things out of bins just replaces human inefficiency with mechanical inefficiency. This system is totally better than making an android wander a warehouse looking for junk by hand and foot, even if their error rate is 0%. Why build a robot that can push around a pallet like a human when you can just build a robotic pallet?

  • Cameorn May 8, 2009 on 6:23 pm

    This opens up a whole world of resource allocation algorithms. Usually the logistical mathematics is limited by human-based constraints. It might be worthwhile to throw the book out on bin-packing and random access methods and try some new, fun linear algorithms from scratch!

  • Chris May 9, 2009 on 1:15 pm

    Hi!

    You suggested humans are a integral and highly valued part of the system, manually placing items from one box to another one.

    They are not necessary. The only reason they are used is that humans can handle a multitude of different items, which robotic systems can’t yet. Just wait a couple of years, robots will do all that pick and place stuff.

    This human job in the KIVA system is a good example on that. Once robots are able to do that cheaply, there’s no need for humans performing these mundane tasks.

    Of course that leads to the topics of unemployment and the importance of education and free knowledge.

  • Robert Riley May 10, 2009 on 9:58 am

    Very impressive. Much of what we’ve seen in robotics has been restricted to either toys or tech demos, so it’s nice to see that robots are making their way out of the research labs and into something that really increases productivity.

  • CK of AZ May 11, 2009 on 6:00 pm

    Automation will eliminate more and more jobs… Another 5 years and all Warehouse jobs will be eliminated; automated vehicles in 10 to 15 years eliminate Mailmen (not that they are really needed now), Fed Ex, Pilots, Truck Drivers, Construction Equipment Operators all gone. Systems like Wolfram Alpha will be substitutes for customer Service Jobs (like mine) in another decade. Fully Automated Fast Food Restaurants, Farms, you name it, literally hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of jobs will be no longer by 2025.

    I hope the Government relies this… Socialism will be to the right.

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  • Used Plastic Pallet October 7, 2010 on 11:42 am

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  • gdlonborg January 4, 2012 on 12:19 pm

    I’ve worked in warehouses, and there’s nothing in this about dealing with “special cases”… and there will always be those. I love this company’s approach to reducing the repetitive and laborious, and the obvious productivity gains. People will still have jobs, just more productive and less repetitious jobs. The robots still need a warehouse with a large smooth open floor, the construction of which will never be outsourced. This looks like a surge in warehouse construction to me…