LocusBots at Locus Robotics.

Credit: Molly Boigon/WGBH News

Love Online Shopping? Thank A Robot.

June 28, 2017

Think of a robot in pop culture and you might picture R2D2 from Star Wars, or maybe Wall-E, the lonely but lovable Pixar-animated garbage collector. For me, that reference point is Poo-Chi, the unfortunately named, gray, very angular robotic dog released in 2000 that jerked around on stiff legs and expressed “emotions” through a red LED display.

These were the images in my head as I drove to Locus Robotics in Wilmington, MA, to meet the LocusBot. I couldn’t have been more wrong.

The LocusBot looks like a short Gatorade cooler with a stem attached. The base is wired with sensors, hidden just beneath the plasticky surface, so it avoids any human being that steps in its path. The robots buzz around the simulated warehouse on wheels with ease, navigating aisles using barcodes placed at their entrances like street signs. They are designed to help warehouse workers find and pick items in the warehouse faster.

“On this robot, there’s basically a task,” says Bruce Welty, the founder of Locus Robotics. He’s pointing to an iPad at the front of the robot. “It tells you what location to pick it from, which quantity to pick — the fact that it’s got that green, that tells you it’s going to be in this order.” He points to a green bin on the robot.

The iPad, said Welty, is an integral part of the robot’s function.

“It tells you all the things about that item, and then if you just touch the screen, it will actually give you a picture of it,” he said. “It also tells you there are 10 units left to pick on this order.”

Locus is one of a new generation of robotics companies in Massachusetts looking to redefine our expectations for buying goods online. These companies design robots that expedite the steps between clicking “confirm order” and coming home to a brown box from your favorite online retailer.

Amazon’s acquisition of a warehouse robot giant called Kiva Systems left a hole in the e-commerce world that is now being filled by startups from the region’s innovation belt that are looking to keep smaller warehouses running efficiently.

This is the world of e-commerce: warehouses filled with everything from individually wrapped travel shampoo bottles to Thai spices, packed and shipped together, and there are a lot of logistics to coordinate.

Any e-commerce company might receive orders from New York, Dallas and San Diego, each one with different sizes of multiple items, all of them needed the next day. Customers have come to expect accuracy and speed for customized orders of everything from ice scrapers, to soundproofing panels, to tanning lotion.

“You cannot accomplish that without a serious commitment to automation,” said Daniel Theobald, co-founder of Vecna, a technology company based in Cambridge. “There’s just physically no way for human-only processes to effectively get the product that you ordered and deliver it to your doorstep in that time frame. It’s literally that automation is the only option.”

His company has a full suite of robots designed for fulfilling orders in warehouses. A robotic lifter, a driver-optional robotic tugger and a robotic conveyor are all warehouse fulfillment robots that make more efficient the process of getting a product off the shelf to the consumer.

Theobald says there was resistance to the use of robots in warehouses for years until the demands of e-commerce made them too attractive to ignore.

“It’s just in the past six months that we have observed a flip from making robotics a push into the market ... to suddenly, now it’s a massive pull,” he said. “That mental flip in the industry is just literally in this last year.”

What took warehouses so long to automate? Theobald chalks it up to a lack of economic necessity, slow innovation and until recently, a social aversion to robots.

He pointed to the portrayal of robots in the U.S. versus in Japan as an example. In American movies, robots were usually the bad guys, which was not the case in Japan, a contrast he called an “interesting reflection on attitudes toward automation in the two countries.”

Despite any original resistance, the past year has seen a major shift. Kiva Systems used to provide robotics solutions to warehouses, but after its acquisition by Amazon in 2012, smaller e-commerce companies were left scrambling for new innovators to create robots for them. This new window, combined with changing consumer expectations and more advanced technology, has created fertile ground for robotics companies in Massachusetts.

Many of the warehouse robot creators have poised themselves to deliver a much-needed leg up for e-commerce companies that might have otherwise been easily swept away by Amazon. The specifics vary, but most of the logistics robots are designed to minimize the amount of time a human employee spends looking for an item in the warehouse. In warehouses without them, some workers walk 14 miles a day finding items and packing carts.

The robots rely more heavily on software than hardware so they can be installed and updated with relative ease. But, the human being is still needed to actually grab the right item from the shelf and put it in a cart, like loading burlap sacks onto a pack animal.

“That piece of the technology equation — at this time there’s no good economic solution for that, no technology out there today with end defectors and arms and grabbers and vision systems that’s better than a human or more economical than a human to do that,” said Jerome Dubois, co-founder of 6 River Systems in Waltham. “So we said, ‘Let’s keep the associate, the person, as the centerpiece. Let’s just make everything faster around them.’”

Automation in warehouses raises red flags for people who are worried about the scarcity of blue-collar jobs. But, Dubois says warehouse fulfillment has a turnover problem. Smaller and mid-sized e-commerce companies struggle to match Amazon’s efficiency, and there aren’t enough people willing to work in warehouses to meet the demand. Last year, for example, warehouses scrambled to hire 15 to 20 percent more workers in preparation for the holiday season.

To help them compete, Dubois and 6 River Systems created “Chuck,” a robot that leads the human associates through the warehouse so they know exactly what item to pick and where it is, similar to Locus’s robot. He argues that Chuck will enable clients to maintain employees and improve their productivity in the midst of the shortage.

“We are decades away from being able to go into an environment where the human, the associate, is no longer needed in the warehouse for that operation,” he said.

At the Locus headquarters in Wilmington, there’s a line of robots in a window. This is a sort of shrine to robots past, and it shows how the technology has changed for the rapidly shifting world of e-commerce.

Welty, the co-founder of Locus, emphasized how everything about the robots has a function, and every design choice has a cause. He talked about how shaving off the sides of the circular base allows robots to travel past each other in tight spaces.

For Welty, every bit of efficiency counts in an industry that processes thousands, in some cases millions, of orders.

“If I can save one second times 10 million, that matters,” he said.

6 River System’s Dubois sees the future of e-commerce as requiring even more advanced technology to keep the warehouse efficient.

“The next generation is interacting with things that are not designed by us,” he said. “A forklift that's been in the warehouse for 20 years— how do I now interoperate with that?”

A robot interacting with a piece of “legacy automation equipment” may seem far off, but who could have predicted same-day delivery? Right now, automation is leveling the playing field in e-commerce. But, Theobald of Vecna Logistics sees automation as a necessity more than an advantage, as more and more of commerce happens online.

“To be competitive in this day and age in an e-commerce-dominated marketplace,” he said, “automation is the only way to compete.”


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