December 07, 2016      

Logistics robots are becoming an essential part of order fulfillment, particularly during the holiday shopping season.

“Because of changes in the supply chain due to e-commerce and the need to ship massive amounts of single items in large quantities, we expect labor shortages to continue, and there is a huge demand for robots,” said Bruce Welty, chairman of Quiet Logistics Inc. and Locus Robotics Corp.

Devens, Mass.-based Quiet Logistics, which supports supply chain operations, developed its own logistics robots after Amazon.com Inc. acquired Kiva Systems Inc. in 2012. Locus Robotics was the result of that effort.

“The problem isn’t finding demand; it’s coming up with everything for a full solution,” Welty told Robotics Business Review. “We developed our own robot. We’re a service provider.”

Business Takeaways:

  • Locus Robotics is a spinoff of Quiet Logistics, which decided to build its own robot for the logistics industry after Amazon acquired Kiva.
  • The market for supply chain robots is expected to grow by more than 30 percent by 2020, according to Big Market Research.
  • Locus is testing its logistics robots with several customers and is looking to expand globally.

Seasonal stress and demand

“We get a lot of inquiries around Black Friday/Cyber Monday,” Welty said. “It’s like a submarine — you find out how well it works when it’s deep, under maximum stress.”

“Now is the time when companies of all sizes are evaluating their current setups and trying to make judgments as to how airtight they are,” he added. “If their operations aren’t built for it, they find out now.”

Locus Robotics Chairman Bruce Welty

Locus Robotics Chairman Bruce Welty talks to 60 Minutes.

“[Users] experience the full range of emotions,” Welty said. “We hear, ‘My current operations have failed; we can’t continue to work like this; we need help ASAP.'”

“A lot of these companies are very big companies,” he noted. “Our industry is up 21 percent from last year. Very few industries of this size grow that fast in the world.”

Improving the technology, productivity

“We already had business software, and we knew what we liked and didn’t like about Kiva [now Amazon Robotics] as we created our own robot,” Welty recalled. “We addressed walking and picking activities to increase productivity.”

“Our hardware is very advanced, stable, and solid,” he said. “Our logistics robots work extremely well, and pickers and stockers love the design.”

By contrast, Welty added, “the software, which we built from the ground up, is never going to be done. It will continually improve and manifest itself in the robot’s behavior.”

“Our Locus bot runs much better than six months ago — it’s actually the software that runs it better,” he said. “We’re constantly iterating.”

“Basically, a very simple measure is units picked per person, per hour,” Welty explained. “Quiet Logistics has three methods of picking — manual, Kiva-based, and Locus-based.”

“While it’s hard to give absolute numbers because operations vary, the percentage improvement is constant,” he said. “Kiva increases productivity 3x from manual picking, and Locus 5x. This is based on our own experience using it in our warehouses.”

“We’re very comfortable saying to our customers that we’re considerably better and cheaper than Kiva,” said Welty. “The total solution price is less than half Kiva’s price because we don’t need the goods-to-person infrastructure.”

Locus rolls out its bots

“Putting in new supply chain systems has always been a challenge,” Welty observed. “There’s a switchover that can be very violent, which generally doesn’t work out well.”

“You can’t always test new systems in the development environment to match the production environment,” he said. “We minimize the amount of disruption — customers need to have warehouses up 24/7 — a lot of it is risk mitigation, taking baby steps.”

“Typically, our process to implement a customer is to do a pilot,” Welty said. “We do all the hardware, database connections, the interface, train and label the warehouse, and set up the charging stations. We do all the hard work.”

“An advantage of our new system is that you don’t have to make infrastructure changes,” he said. “This gives customers complete flexibility as to how fast to roll out automation.”

“The rollout strategy depends on the unique circumstances of the customer — we can do it slowly or quickly,” Welty explained. “A third-party logistics company, for instance, may want to roll it out one customer at a time.”

“A manufacturer may want to roll out one zone at a time, or a warehouse with different racking systems may roll out one system or storage type at a time,” he said. “Different workers may have different comfort levels with the speed of a robotics rollout.”

“We’re in the early stages of rolling out our system with four clients, and we’re seeing good results,” Welty said. “Three are trials, and one is in production.”

“For instance, we implemented three robots in the first pilot, which grew to five and is now up to 15 in the rollout,” he said. “In our other three pilots, two are running five logistics robots, and one is running eight robots.”

Smart management of logistics robots

“Right now, the robot has varied levels of intelligence,” Welty said. “There’s the basic level of intelligence to move around the warehouse — machine learning, SLAM [simultaneous localization and mapping], all sorts of pattern recognition and scan matching — all help it to avoid obstacles.”

“There’s plenty of room for more advanced concepts of machine learning and AI,” he acknowledged. “Our robot does feel artificially intelligent as a unit judges how to move around you.”

“A lot of the problems we’re seeing haven’t been solved yet — queuing, the traveling salesman problem, path planning,” Welty said. “It’s all out in the world of Ph.D science, and we’re going there.”

Logistics robot from Locus Robotics

Locus Bot mobile robot for warehouse automation.

While there is a place for the emerging industrial Internet of Things (IIoT), Welty said that bar codes are still cheaper than RFID tags. “There is a place for them, but I think mostly it doesn’t work,” he said.

“There a whole opportunity in how we allocate tasks to the robots and how we position robots relative to workers,” Welty said. “That kind of optimization is where we see tremendous improvements in productivity.”

This includes “where the robot is facing after a pick task, where the robots are when you’re walking,” he said. “How can we get next-day orders, same-day orders, emergency orders, and manage workflows?”

“We want to make sure that everybody’s busy at all times but not too much,” Welty said. “We have the capability to manage workers and robots at all times and improve operations.”

Competitive awareness

Wilmington, Mass.-based Locus Robotics is aware of numerous other companies starting to offer logistics robots, but coming out of Quiet Logistics, it already understands industry needs.

“You never want to underestimate competitors,” Welty said. “A lot of people are entering this space with robots, but we need to ask, ‘What do you want to do?’ rather than figure out what to do with a robot.”

“I feel a little bit responsible for the market being competitive,” he added. “After Kiva got acquired, I jumped on a plane to see who had robots for fulfillment. Four or five companies entered the market after my conversations with them, but there’s a lot of repurposing.”

“Some companies just want to build a mobile robot, but that’s just like a tool like a screwdriver or a hammer doesn’t really solve a problem,” Welty said. “Think of how [logistics robots] fit into the whole system.”

“If you said to me today, ‘We have a robot that can roll around on a warehouse floor,’ that’s only 20 percent of what makes a robot work,” he said. “There’s a lot to know before systems can work in the real world.”

“Software is key; there are all sorts of complexities around navigation, optimizing the work, and handling exceptions,” Welty said. “We just want to solve problems for end users.”

More on Logistics Robots:

Getting funding to go global

“Once Kiva went commercial, it as a $100 million business. Then it was bought by Amazon,” Welty noted. “Kiva just scratched the surface of the market opportunity. There’s lots of demand across the world.”

Locus Robotics logo

“Target, Walmart, Staples, and Walgreens — everybody that has to ship an item ordered online is a potential customer,” Welty said. “Alibaba is bigger than Amazon. It’s a huge problem and a crazy big opportunity.”

“We’re currently working with advisers, consultants, and bankers, trying to figure out which markets to enter and when,” he said. “We’ll have a plan in place by the end of the year.”

“We already have our A round of funding. We’re looking at a B round [of funding] early next year,” Welty said. “We don’t know the size of it yet because at the moment, our business looks very good. We may not need to raise as much money as we thought.”

“We’ve had success with customers, but there is the question of how much preparation we need to expand globally,” he said.