Filling the technology gap in the warehouse

Many startups and established companies are looking to fill the void after Kiva Robotics' technology, warehouse software systems, and robots were removed from the marketplace after they were acquired and absorbed into Amazon's business.

By Frank Tobe, The Robot Report May 18, 2016

There was confusion whether Kiva Robotics would continue providing Kiva robots to 
distribution centers after Amazon acquired the company in 2012. Although Kiva said that they would continue selling their technology to other retailers, it soon became clear that Amazon was taking all of Kiva’s production and that, at some future date, Kiva would stop supporting their existing client base and focus entirely on Amazon.

This happened in April 2015 when Amazon renamed Kiva to Amazon Robotics and encouraged prospective users of Kiva technology to let Amazon Robotics and Amazon Services provide fulfillment within Amazon warehouses using Amazon robots.

Kiva’s robots and inventory management system were breakthrough technologies in 2011 and 2012 enabling items that were to be shipped to be brought to the packer near the truck door instead of the more traditional method of the picker/packer going out into the warehouse, picking the goods, and returning to pack and ship them.

At the time Kiva started operations, robotic picking was still a premature science; Kiva focused on managing the rest of the process: receiving, depalletizing, storing items, and bringing dynamically stored shelves containing ordered items to the picker/packer to pick, pack and ship while the Kiva robot returned the shelves to the most appropriate area in a free-form dynamic warehouse and autonomously went off to bring the next shelf to another picker/packer.

Although vision systems and grasping technologies have improved since then, they still aren’t fast and flexible enough to replace humans so, instead, most new systems attempt to augment humans by reducing what they have to carry and the distances they have to travel to get the items that were ordered. Consequently, there has been a scramble of new providers to fill the void left as Kiva’s technology, warehouse software systems, and robots were removed from the marketplace. 

Fulfillment system startup companies

Iam Robotics, a Pittsburgh startup founded by a couple of Central Michigan University (CMU) grads, uses a robot arm to grip goods. The robot also 3-D scans and identifies items to be picked into a cloud library and then uses a mobile picking robot to go to and pick items, place them in a tote, and then place the completed tote on the nearest conveyor to a packing station.

Locus Robotics uses a fleet of robots integrated into current warehouse management systems to provide robotic platforms to carry picked items to a conveyor or to the packing station thereby reducing human walking distances and improving overall picking efficiencies.

6 River Systems, a Massachusetts startup comprised of ex-Kiva execs, had a booth but wasn’t even showing a photo of their solution. Venture capitalists (VCs) have seen the 6 River System, however, and value it highly: 6 River just got $6 million in financing from a group of VCs including iRobot.

Fetch Robotics, a Silicon Valley startup, uses two different robots: one to pick and the other to assist workers as they pick by carrying the items and taking completed orders to the shipping station autonomously.

Magazino has a mobile picking system that features a retractable and rotatable column with a gripper system and a removable shelf. It is designed to grasp rectangular objects from small softcovers to shoeboxes up to heavy cases. The robot stores items in its built-in shelf and delivers it to a shipping station.

GreyOrange, an Indian startup, has a system and product line strikingly similar to Kiva’s original offerings except that their robot is square and Kiva’s is round. GreyOrange has over 300 employees and its robots provide service to India’s e-commerce giants such as Flipkart, Jabong, and Mahindra and has been signing distribution partners in Japan and throughout Asia and the Pacific.

InVia Robotics, a Southern California startup, has two robots that grab items and slide them onto a platform which then slides the item into a bin and, when the order is complete, slides it onto an autonomous mobile delivery robot.

Established fulfillment system providers

Swisslog, 96%-owned by Kuka AG, has two divisions: healthcare and materials handling. Their CarryPick materials handling automated guided vehicle (AGV) is quite similar to Kiva’s system in that the CarryPick lifts and moves shelves to the packing station. It uses four clamp-on devices to lift and move the shelves while Kiva has a single screw-on mechanism. The CarryPick follows white lines painted on the floor, and, at present, is only sold in Europe.

Grenzebach is a family-owned group of German industrial automation companies that has had previous ventures with both Kuka and Swisslog and has a mobility device they call Carry which can handle different types of shelves, moves along the floor reading barcode stickers for localization, and brings the shelves to the picker/packer.

Mobile platform systems

Mobile platform systems are designed to work across multiple environments and are autonomous mobile platforms that can be fitted with special-purpose payloads such as for receiving, restocking, inventory, moving material from work cell to work cell, picking, supporting human pickers, packing, and palletizing.

Many vendors have provided AGVs, carts, lifts and tows, and have done so for many years. The older versions of these systems use markings, tapes, beacons, sensors and other things on the floors and ceilings to provide location information. Newer systems use the latest 3-D vision systems, collision avoidance and mapping software to easily enable autonomous point-to-point navigation.

Clearpath Robotics is offering two transporters and both can be fitted with a carrying cart, bin carrier or a plain flat plate. Both have an intuitive lighting system similar to white headlights in the front, red in the rear. Clearpath is an established provider of robotic utility vehicles for the military and academia and are taking that experience to provide solid mobility platforms for customers to do their own thing.

MiR Mobile Industrial Robots, a Danish startup headed by Thomas Visti (who was VP at Universal Robots of collaborative robots fame), has begun to sell a small transport for logistics and healthcare. It operates as both a tug and/or a platform. It has two scanners and a 3-D camera to make sure that it sees people and obstacles.

Next-gen AGVs: Vision-guided robots

Seegrid said that today’s vision-guided vehicles are the next generation of AGVs. Many vendors have, for years, provided material handling AGVs used to tow carts and pallets around warehouses, hospitals and factories. They depend upon beacons or floor and wall markings for their navigation and are efficient, but klutzy.

Armed with lower-cost LiDARs and Kinect-like infrared 3-D camera systems, new players have entered the market with new capabilities including being able to autonomously unload containers.

Aethon is a Pittsburgh-based provider of autonomous tugs used in hospitals and factories. Some of their AGVs (they have more than 400 in the field) have been outfitted for secure medication delivery, and all of their robots are assisted with their cloud command center, a 24/7/365 remote monitoring service to get the tug out of whatever unplanned situation in which it finds itself.

Seegrid, also based in Pittsburgh, has focused their vision guided kits and lifts on the distribution center marketplace. Seegrid recently unveiled a monitoring system likened to a subway platform display showing when the next train is coming.

Balyo, a French manufacturer of handling robots has recently partnered with Linde and Hyster Yale to integrate and provide their vision-guided systems onto forklifts and tows manufactured by Linde and Yale.

Frank Tobe is the owner and publisher of The Robot Report. After selling his business and retiring from 25+ years in computer direct marketing and materials and consulting to the Democratic National Committee as well as major presidential, senatorial, congressional, mayoral campaigns and initiatives all across the U.S., Canada and internationally, he has energetically pursued a new career in researching and investing in robotics. This article originally appeared on The Robot Report. The Robot Report is a CFE Media content partner. Edited by Chris Vavra, production editor, CFE Media,

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