robot drivingI’ve covered supply chain and third-party logistics (3PL) automation technologies for years. There’s been a variety of “cool” solutions, many of them featuring robots, RFID, sensors and the like. But many of these solutions labor in the shadows of mainstream logistics operations, and some aren’t even that lucky. RFID – arguably thanks to the Wal-Mart mandate in the early 2000s – has perhaps made the most inroads. But there’s another automated logistics solution that’s getting some attention, and it comes in the form of little orange bots.
Kiva Systems’ Kiva Mobile-robotic Fulfillment System relies on autonomous mobile robots, moveable shelves, workstations, smart control software, a wireless network, barcodes and sensors to automate picking and putting processes in warehouses. Perhaps you’ve heard about Kiva Systems: in mid-2012, Amazon acquired the company for about $775 million. By that time, Kiva Systems was already in use by numerous e-commerce businesses, including Amazon.

The “cool” factor of Kiva Systems’ solution is the army of robots, about 19 inches tall and 330 lbs., that can carry the equivalent of a pallet worth of goods. The robots move mobile inventory pads to the workstations, where people fill them with inbound goods and/or pick goods out of them to fulfill orders. The solution reduces the need for workers to walk the floor during materials handling processes.

While the robot captures the imagination, in a recent article Mick Mountz is the CEO and founder wrote for Harvard Business Review, it’s not about the bot. For an automation solution to take hold and overhaul traditional warehouse operations, it requires what Mountz wrote is “an industry-defying approach to doing business and an extraordinary commitment to ensuring that customers gain the benefits they’re seeking.” You can read more of the article, “Kiva the Disrupter,” here.

Kiva Systems’ solution continues to finds its way into logistics operations. Footwear, apparel and accessories maker Timberland completed its implementation in late 2012. The company is using it to automate all wholesale, retail and direct-to-consumer fulfillment activities in its European distribution center. 3PL Think Logistics, a provider of tailored retail, direct to customer and commercial supply chain solutions for organizations serving the Canadian market, opened a new operation that uses Kiva Systems’ solution in October 2012. The Kiva robotic fulfillment system at the 124,000 sq. ft. facility dynamically selects prioritizes and picks product housed within a highly-secured environment. 
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