The Art of Movement
is a monthly show that highlights the most significant innovations in science and technology that are helping shape our modern world.
It is essential that all inventory is organized and easy to find, in order to get these items to their final destinations on time -- that is, unless the inventory needed can be summoned on demand.
That is exactly what happens at the 25,500-square-meter Quiet Logistics
fulfillment center, in Massachusetts, where 200 robots help workers prepare 10,000 to 20,000 orders for delivery every day. It uses a system designed by Amazon
that keeps track of all inventory so the robots know exactly what is on each storage unit.
"The robots job is really to move inventory from storage to the work station," said Brian Lemerise VP of third-party fulfillment at Quiet Logistics. "Anytime someone places an order ... the robot is dispatched to the storage location that has that unit and brings it to our associates to pick."
Kiva robots have a reported accuracy rate of 99.99%, so human error is practically eliminated in this phase of the process.
With names like Bot-Mobile, Jack-in-the-Bot, and Betty-Bot, each robot is given its own identity and its own assignments. Like a choreographed routine they move autonomously up and down the aisles of the warehouse at about 10 kilometers per hour -- never missing a step, and always hitting their mark. This is made possible by the bar codes they drive over and the cameras on the bottom of the drive units, which together communicate where the bot is driving to.
They are designed to operate in tight quarters and at just 76 cm long, 64cm wide and 41 cm high, the robots are small enough to travel under the storage units, yet strong enough to lift almost a metric ton of merchandise. They can even find the charging station when their power is running low.
What keeps this mechanical workforce performing with such precision -- and from crashing into each other -- is the software that commands it.
"We think of the software as being a giant air traffic control system," says Al Dekin, Senior VP of sales and marketing at Quiet Logistics. "The software will allocate a certain number of spots to a specific robot; that's what keeps the robots from hitting each other"
He adds: "In terms of overall productivity, the use of the robotics tend to be around anywhere between three-and-a-half to upwards of five times more productive, so we'd have to have that many more people to actually get the same amount of work done."
But the human touch is still necessary to get the products out the door. Quiet Logistics has 400 people working on fulfillment at the Massachusetts facility alone, so these smart machines are not yet ready to replace living workers. But they do make it easier to get the job done.