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Kiva Systems is a Massachusetts based company that manufactures mobile robotic fulfillment systems. It is a subsidiary company of Amazon.com and its material handling systems are currently used by companies including: The Gap, Walgreens, Staples, Gilt Groupe, Office Depot, Crate & Barrel, Saks 5th Avenue, and more.
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. These challenges inspired Mountz to create a better way to pick, pack, and ship orders through a game-changing system that could deliver any item to any operator at any time. To accomplish his vision, Mountz sought help from Peter Wurman and Raffaello D'Andrea, who were experts in the area of engineering and robotics. In 2003, Mountz became the founder and CEO of Kiva Systems, through his partnership with co-founders Wurman and D'Andrea.
Traditionally, goods are moved around a distribution centre using a conveyor system or by human operated machines (such as forklifts). In Kiva’s approach, items are stored on portable storage units. When an order is entered into the Kiva database system, the software locates the bot (also known as drive unit) closest to the item and directs it retrieve it. The mobile robots navigate around the warehouse by following a series of computerized barcode stickers on the floor. Each drive unit has a sensor, which prevents it from colliding with each other. When the drive unit reaches the target location, it slides underneath the pod and lifts it off the ground through a corkscrew action. The robot then carries the pod to the specified human operator to pick the items.
Kiva has two models of robots. The smaller model is approximately 2 feet by 2.5 feet, and one foot high and capable of lifting 1000 pounds. The larger model can carry pallets and loads as heavy as 3,000 pounds. Both are a distinctive orange color. The maximum velocity of a robot is 1.3 meters per second. The mobile bots are battery-powered and need to be recharged every hour for five minutes.
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. The system is much more efficient and accurate than the traditional method of having human workers traveling around the warehouse locating and picking items.
Since the acquisition by Amazon, Kiva has remained silent. The company has not announced any new Kiva customers and have stopped their marketing activities. Most of Kiva’s sales staff have departed, though the company continues to hire in the engineering and manufacturing departments. Industry observers speculate that Amazon is focusing on internal operations and is not interested in sharing the technology with competitors.