AI News, Three Engineers, Hundreds of Robots, One Warehouse

Three Engineers, Hundreds of Robots, One Warehouse

“The beauty of our system,” Raffaello D’Andrea says as he paces across the warehouse, “is that you don’t have to walk over to the shelves to get things—the shelves come to you.” With that, he motions toward some 200 blue plastic racks sitting at the center of the building.

After four years perfecting its system, Kiva now faces the challenge of convincing potential customers to switch from conventional warehouse technologies to a fleet of mobile robots.

“But many customers are scared of the latest whiz-bang toys and prefer to wait until they get a little bit more history.” Maybe that’s one reason Kiva avoids the label of “robotics company.” “We invented a solution for fulfillment,” Mountz insists.

The office supply giant Staples uses 500 Kiva robots at its 30 000-square-meter fulfillment center in Chambersburg, Pa., and has equipped an entire warehouse in Denver with the robotic system.

And Zappos, the online shoe store, is adding Kiva robots to part of its massive fulfillment center in Shepherdsville, Ky., which began operation three years ago and now houses 4.2 million shoes, handbags, and clothing items.

“If I’d known about Kiva back then,” says Craig Adkins, vice president of fulfillment operations at Zappos, “I’d have built the entire building with nothing but Kiva.” D’Andrea says that this is the first time hundreds of autonomous robots have been put to work together on a commercial application.

He probably knows more about the orange, wheeled machines than anyone else, but with a hectic travel schedule, he’s one of the few Kivans—as the staff calls itself—who has never seen the robots in action at a customer’s site.

Engineers park their bicycles in their cubicles, take breaks at a Ping-Pong table, and spice their talk with such industry jargon as “eaches” (individual items) and “sortation” (separating inventory into groups).

They don’t name their robots but simply call them “drive units.” If you hear that one “needs a drink,” that just means it’s going to get a battery recharge.

The robots, he explains, navigate the warehouse by pointing cameras at the floor that read two-dimensional bar-coded stickers laid out by hand 1 meter from each other, in a grid.

The Kiva robots can present a new item to a worker every 6 seconds, leading to a base rate of 600 picks per hour, with Walgreens reaching a rate of more than 700.

Last year, when Staples had to relocate its Kiva operation from one end of the building to another, the engineers simply placed bar codes on the hallway leading from the old to the new site and told the robots to do the rest.

It’s fun to watch the robots, but the human workers filling the orders are also impressive: they watch for the laser dot, pick a product, scan its bar code, throw it into a box, and start over.

He says that because products vary so much in size and shape and because of the way they sit on shelves, robotic manipulators still can’t beat real arms and hands.

“They factored what robots are good at compared to what people are good at, and they realized you don’t have to stop with one robot—you can have thousands of robots,” says Rodney Brooks, a professor of robotics at MIT and cofounder of iRobot, the maker of the Roomba vacuum cleaner.

“Technologically, there’s no reason why Kiva couldn’t have happened 10 or 15 years ago,” says Scott Friedman, CEO of Seegrid, a start-up in Pittsburgh that developed pallet-carrying robots guided by an advanced vision system.

“If that was the case, Kiva would have been invented a long time ago in Europe, where labor costs are normally much higher.” More important, he adds, was the emergence of powerful but inexpensive electronics—wireless systems, guidance sensors, embedded processors—and the recent development of novel algorithms in the fields of multiagent systems and control theory.

“To architect the whole system,” he says, “it took us many, many late nights.” Kiva’s technology began in early 2002 as a bunch of diagrams and queuing-theory equations on a dry-erase board at Mountz’s one-bedroom apartment in Palo Alto, Calif.

They eventually focused on the idea of a central computer that would wirelessly command all the robots in real time, so that the human operators would never stand idle.

Instead of relying on a single piece of software that centralizes all the decisions, they envisioned software agents that could run on the central computer, on the robots, and on PCs at the picking stations.

6950722, which described a “real-time parallel-processing order fulfillment and inventory management system.” It had a crude drawing of the robots, which looked like short trash cans on wheels.

van der Meulen, now a professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering at Cornell, who promptly said, “You have to meet this RoboCup guy at Cornell!” The colleague in question was Raffaello D’Andrea, who had led the Cornell team to no less than four RoboCup world championships.

They modified the rack-lifting mechanism, optimized the wireless module, added safety and power-management features, and most important, came up with a totally new navigation and control system.

If most of them see centered stickers, the robot figures that the stickers are in the right place and that the shift in position is due to inherent imperfections with its own hardware—its camera may be off center or its wheels misaligned.

Rather than equipping the robots with expensive, high-precision parts to ensure they drive in straight lines, Kiva lets the control software take care of the variations and imperfections in the hardware components.

“The control system takes care of that.” The control system also takes care of another nagging issue: keeping the rack stable while the robot lifts it off the ground.

It’s an intricate piece of machinery—a threaded shaft 30.5 centimeters in diameter with a nut assembly filled with ball bearings, custom-machined from hard-anodized aluminum at an undisclosed shop in Massachusetts.

To prevent the rack from rotating while the screw turns, the control system causes the robot to rotate in the opposite direction at the exact speed required to keep the rack motionless.

“It’s like an off-road course.” In other test protocols—designed more for fun than for technical reasons—the team aligned a dozen robots and made them oscillate like a sine wave while engineers “surfed” them.

“I can just imagine 10 years from now—people will start writing papers about PDE [partial differential equation] fluid models of Kiva robots, just as it was done with highway traffic.” And he adds that although Kiva is not about “cool robots,” he enjoys spending time with them.

Amazon Robotics

Amazon Robotics (formerly Kiva Systems) is a Massachusetts-based company that manufactures mobile robotic fulfillment systems.[1][2] It is a subsidiary company of Amazon.com and its automated storage and retrieval systems was previously used by companies including: The Gap, Walgreens, Staples, Gilt Groupe, Office Depot, Crate

After working on the business process team at Webvan, a failed online grocery delivery business, Mick Mountz concluded that the company’s downfall was due to the inflexibility of existing material handling systems and the high cost of order fulfillment.[4] These challenges inspired Mountz to create a better way to pick, pack, and ship orders through a system that could deliver any item to any operator at any time.

The maximum velocity of a robot is 1.3 meters per second.[7] The mobile bots are battery-powered and need to be recharged every hour for five minutes.[5] Kiva's relatively new approach to automated material handling systems for order fulfillment is gaining traction in eCommerce fulfillment, retail restocking, parts distribution and medical device distribution operations.

Amazon Acquires Kiva Systems for $775 Million

The giant online retailer announced today that it is acquiring Kiva Systems, a North Reading, Mass.-based company that invented a revolutionary way of managing vast warehouses by using fleets of mobile robots to sort, organize, and transport inventory.

“Amazon has long used automation in its fulfillment centers, and Kiva’s technology is another way to improve productivity by bringing the products directly to employees to pick, pack, and stow,” Dave Clark, Amazon.com’s vice president of global customer fulfillment said in a statement.

Basically, Kiva has reinvented the centuries-old warehouse business, transforming distribution centers -- which previously relied on slow-moving humans to walk around picking and packing goods -- into a buzzing hive of superefficient, tireless robotic workers.

'This is a great validation of the innovation model that I have been encouraging for years as a university professor: Engage in research that pushes the boundary of autonomous systems capabilities, without worrying about whether it has a direct or immediate application,' Raffaello D'Andrea, an ETH Zurich professor and one of Kiva’s co-founders, told me in an email.

'The robotic aspects of Kiva Systems had their genesis in robot soccer: Many of Kiva’s key, initial technical hires were former Cornell RoboCup team members, with expertise in dynamics and control, mechanical engineering, electrical engineering, and computer science,' he said.

Raffaello D'Andrea

Raffaello D'Andrea combines academics, business, and the arts to explore the capabilities of autonomous systems.

As part of his research as professor of dynamic systems and control at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology (ETH Zürich), he and his collaborators enchant viewers with works like the self-destructing, self-assembling Robotic Chair, or the Balancing Cube that can perch itself on its corners.

Three Engineers, Hundreds of Robots, One Warehouse

“The beauty of our system,” Raffaello D’Andrea says as he paces across the warehouse, “is that you don’t have to walk over to the shelves to get things—the shelves come to you.” With that, he motions toward some 200 blue plastic racks sitting at the center of the building.

After four years perfecting its system, Kiva now faces the challenge of convincing potential customers to switch from conventional warehouse technologies to a fleet of mobile robots.

“But many customers are scared of the latest whiz-bang toys and prefer to wait until they get a little bit more history.” Maybe that’s one reason Kiva avoids the label of “robotics company.” “We invented a solution for fulfillment,” Mountz insists.

The office supply giant Staples uses 500 Kiva robots at its 30 000-square-meter fulfillment center in Chambersburg, Pa., and has equipped an entire warehouse in Denver with the robotic system.

And Zappos, the online shoe store, is adding Kiva robots to part of its massive fulfillment center in Shepherdsville, Ky., which began operation three years ago and now houses 4.2 million shoes, handbags, and clothing items.

“If I’d known about Kiva back then,” says Craig Adkins, vice president of fulfillment operations at Zappos, “I’d have built the entire building with nothing but Kiva.” D’Andrea says that this is the first time hundreds of autonomous robots have been put to work together on a commercial application.

He probably knows more about the orange, wheeled machines than anyone else, but with a hectic travel schedule, he’s one of the few Kivans—as the staff calls itself—who has never seen the robots in action at a customer’s site.

Engineers park their bicycles in their cubicles, take breaks at a Ping-Pong table, and spice their talk with such industry jargon as “eaches” (individual items) and “sortation” (separating inventory into groups).

They don’t name their robots but simply call them “drive units.” If you hear that one “needs a drink,” that just means it’s going to get a battery recharge.

The robots, he explains, navigate the warehouse by pointing cameras at the floor that read two-dimensional bar-coded stickers laid out by hand 1 meter from each other, in a grid.

The Kiva robots can present a new item to a worker every 6 seconds, leading to a base rate of 600 picks per hour, with Walgreens reaching a rate of more than 700.

Last year, when Staples had to relocate its Kiva operation from one end of the building to another, the engineers simply placed bar codes on the hallway leading from the old to the new site and told the robots to do the rest.

It’s fun to watch the robots, but the human workers filling the orders are also impressive: they watch for the laser dot, pick a product, scan its bar code, throw it into a box, and start over.

He says that because products vary so much in size and shape and because of the way they sit on shelves, robotic manipulators still can’t beat real arms and hands.

“They factored what robots are good at compared to what people are good at, and they realized you don’t have to stop with one robot—you can have thousands of robots,” says Rodney Brooks, a professor of robotics at MIT and cofounder of iRobot, the maker of the Roomba vacuum cleaner.

“Technologically, there’s no reason why Kiva couldn’t have happened 10 or 15 years ago,” says Scott Friedman, CEO of Seegrid, a start-up in Pittsburgh that developed pallet-carrying robots guided by an advanced vision system.

“If that was the case, Kiva would have been invented a long time ago in Europe, where labor costs are normally much higher.” More important, he adds, was the emergence of powerful but inexpensive electronics—wireless systems, guidance sensors, embedded processors—and the recent development of novel algorithms in the fields of multiagent systems and control theory.

“To architect the whole system,” he says, “it took us many, many late nights.” Kiva’s technology began in early 2002 as a bunch of diagrams and queuing-theory equations on a dry-erase board at Mountz’s one-bedroom apartment in Palo Alto, Calif.

They eventually focused on the idea of a central computer that would wirelessly command all the robots in real time, so that the human operators would never stand idle.

Instead of relying on a single piece of software that centralizes all the decisions, they envisioned software agents that could run on the central computer, on the robots, and on PCs at the picking stations.

6950722, which described a “real-time parallel-processing order fulfillment and inventory management system.” It had a crude drawing of the robots, which looked like short trash cans on wheels.

van der Meulen, now a professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering at Cornell, who promptly said, “You have to meet this RoboCup guy at Cornell!” The colleague in question was Raffaello D’Andrea, who had led the Cornell team to no less than four RoboCup world championships.

They modified the rack-lifting mechanism, optimized the wireless module, added safety and power-management features, and most important, came up with a totally new navigation and control system.

If most of them see centered stickers, the robot figures that the stickers are in the right place and that the shift in position is due to inherent imperfections with its own hardware—its camera may be off center or its wheels misaligned.

Rather than equipping the robots with expensive, high-precision parts to ensure they drive in straight lines, Kiva lets the control software take care of the variations and imperfections in the hardware components.

“The control system takes care of that.” The control system also takes care of another nagging issue: keeping the rack stable while the robot lifts it off the ground.

It’s an intricate piece of machinery—a threaded shaft 30.5 centimeters in diameter with a nut assembly filled with ball bearings, custom-machined from hard-anodized aluminum at an undisclosed shop in Massachusetts.

To prevent the rack from rotating while the screw turns, the control system causes the robot to rotate in the opposite direction at the exact speed required to keep the rack motionless.

“It’s like an off-road course.” In other test protocols—designed more for fun than for technical reasons—the team aligned a dozen robots and made them oscillate like a sine wave while engineers “surfed” them.

“I can just imagine 10 years from now—people will start writing papers about PDE [partial differential equation] fluid models of Kiva robots, just as it was done with highway traffic.” And he adds that although Kiva is not about “cool robots,” he enjoys spending time with them.

Founders: Mick Mountz, Peter Wurman, and Raffaello D’Andrea Kiva uses hundreds of mobile robots and powerful control software to provide a complete fulfillment solution: storing, moving and sorting inventory.

Instead of being stored in static shelving, flow racks or carousels, products are stored in inventory pods in the center of the warehouse while operators stand at inventory stations around the perimeter.

When an order is received, robotic drive units retrieve the appropriate pods and bring them to the worker, who picks out the appropriate item and places it in the carton.

A Day in the Life of a Kiva Robot

Kiva Systems founder and CEO Mick Mountz narrates a play-by-play video of how Kiva robots automate a warehouse environment. Complete video available for free at:

Robotic Distribution

from Kiva Systems and delivered to the online retailer, Zappos.com. For more info, check out Wired Science:

Raffaello D'Andrea 2011 WORLD.MINDS INTERVIEW

WORLD.MINDS, Raffaello D'Andrea, Robotics, Autonomous systems, ETH Zurich, Robocup, Kiva Systems, machines that have never been built before, quatrocopters, interview, interviewed by Rolf Dobelli.

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