November 25, 2015      

As the holiday shopping season begins, stores are rushing to meet consumer demand. A few more companies in Massachusetts have turned to warehouse automation to speed order fulfillment.

Quiet Logistics Inc., which provides support to online retailers, last week deployed robots from spinoff Locus Robotics Corp.

Devens, Mass.-based Quiet Logistics was founded in 2009 and serves e-commerce companies, including clothiers Bluefly, Ministry of Supply, and Zara. It ships more than $1 billion in orders annually and has hired 550 seasonal workers in addition to its new robots.

Quiet Logistics was the first third-party service provider to use Kiva Systems Inc.‘s mobile robots. Inc. acquired Kiva for $775 million in 2012 and renamed it Amazon Robotics. Other logistics robotics companies have arisen since Amazon’s move.

“Locus is working to solve the real-world, daily challenges experienced directly in our fulfillment operations — they understand warehouses,” said Brian Lemerise, vice president of operations at Quiet Logistics. “We were the first service provider to deploy Kiva robots. And now we see even greater benefits with Locus — stronger throughput and greater operational flexibility at a significantly lower cost of deployment.”

Andover Mass.-based Locus Robotics‘ product works with existing warehouse management systems and governs a fleet of robots. They are intended to increase productivity by saving workers from having to walk around a warehouse.

Source: Symbiotic

The Evolution of Warehouse Automation. Click to enlarge. Source: Symbotic LLC

The mobile robots developed in-house are also cheaper and more flexible than Kiva’s robots, said Quiet Logistics.

Locus Robotics has more than $6 million in capital and more than 20 employees, according to Beta Boston, which noted that other robotics companies are developing similar systems.

Some, such as Fetch and Freight from Fetch Robotics Inc., include a picker in addition to a mobile unit.

The devices from Locus Robotics are closer to Amazon/Kiva’s shelf-moving units and the Fetch mobile base in that they still rely on humans to pick and place items rather than on robotic grippers.

Robotics accelerates e-commerce

As consumers continue to move online for holiday shopping, the pressure on e-commerce vendors for instant gratification has increased. Amazon’s Prime Now delivery service promises delivery in an hour, and it is already available in 11 cities. The retailer recently leased a 96,600-square-foot warehouse near Boston to provide Prime Now service to that city.

According to material handling provider Symbotic LLC in Wilmington, Mass., warehouse automation will actually create jobs and reduce outsourcing rather than eliminate jobs.

Thanks to technological improvements, the global market for automation in the logistics industry will double from $16 billion this year to $31.3 billion in 2020, predicts Lexington, Mass.-based WinterGreen Research Inc.

“This new market is evolving as new automated process based on breakthroughs and innovation in technology is expressed in robotic platforms,” said Susan Eustis, lead author of the study.

“Grippers, microprocessor technology, optics, cameras, nanotechnology, new materials, thin-film batteries, and sensors are among the technologies being put to use in innovative ways in robots,” she said. “The ability to apply any technology from any company is phenomenal.”

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