Mobile Robots: Automating The Warehouse

Sept. 27, 2006
At Staples, Inc. a mobile robot-based system helped triple order fulfillment rate per operator at a retailer's warehouse.

Armless, mobile robots? Eventually hundreds of them? They're automating storage and retrieval at the Chambersburg, Pa., warehouse of Staples Inc. Used as warehouse gofers for order fulfillment operators, hourly output per person has tripled.

For example, the robots roam the 500,000-square-foot facility and deliver the needed inventory items to the order fulfillment operators. Those operators now stay at their workstations awaiting robotic delivery of individual shelving pods containing the needed product.

The operator removes the part and the robot returns the inventory pod. The pods -- 3 feet square and 6 feet tall -- are designed to let the robots scoot underneath, lift and carry them as needed. With the shelving loaded with product, pods typically weigh up to 1,000 pounds.

Robots find and deliver the shelving pods containing the product.Fast implementation and easy reconfigurability are the prime advantages of the system, says Mick Mountz, founder and CEO of solution provider Kiva Systems Inc., Woburn, Mass. He says systems can be installed in a day and immediate warehouse layout changes are possible. By measuring item demand, Kiva's software can even help identify what inventory pods should be relocated for most efficient availability of popular products. The operative words, Mountz notes, are "mobile, modular and flexible." Shelves per pod can range from four to seven, he adds.

Optical navigation systems guide the robots by enabling them to recognize floor markers. The Kiva system wirelessly transmits retrieval instructions to each robot. Mountz says hundreds of the robots will be in simultaneous operation at the Staples warehouse.

Mountz traces his inspiration for designing and manufacturing the Kiva system back to a pick, pack and ship experience during the height of the dot-com era. He recalls how difficult it was to assemble Web site grocery orders for delivery. "Customers would go online and order 20 or 30 items, and back at the distribution center we would have to find and assemble the order for delivery. No material handling solutions addressed the automation challenge directly."

For Kiva, Mountz says pick, pack and ship applications are just the beginning. He looks forward to applying his system to manufacturing and assembly operations.

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