Zappos DC Does the Robot

Ever considered robots for your warehouse? Online shoe retailer now has a fleet of 70 working in its distribution center.

The robots – which measure about 2’x3’x4’ and look like oversize orange breadboxes with wheels and little headlights– autonomously roll around the facility, picking orders and bringing them to packing stations. They put orders away, too. began using the robots — made by Kiva Systems — about three weeks ago, so “it’s kind of a test bed for us, in some ways,” says Craig Adkins, vice president of services and operations. The merchant is only using the robots in a dedicated 80,000-sq.-ft. section of its overall 832,000-sq.-ft. facility in Louisville, KY.

Adkins says the Kiva Mobile Fulfillment System first came to his attention in early 2007, when Zappos was looking at expanding its fulfillment operations. An investor friend of the company introduced management to the system, which combines robotics, software, special warehouse infrastructure and wireless technology to provide a new level of warehouse automation.

But Adkins says at first he had his doubts about using robots in the DC. “My initial reaction was the same as most people: I said, ‘Wow, it’s cool, and different — but it looks like it’s going to be more expensive,’” he recalls. “I was very close to walking away from it, before doing closer analysis.”

Seeing the system in action at office supplies merchant Staples’ DC in Chambersburg, PA, helped change his mind. Staples has been using it for more than two years.

How does it work? The robots – which have no appendages – are actually more like “intelligent dollies,” which slide under special racks or crates that are also part of the system. They then transport the racks – goods and all — to a warehouse worker who mans a pick station.

The robots run on proprietary software: Each is controlled wirelessly via WiFi and can navigate itself around the entire warehouse. Navigational software keeps the robots from bumping into things and each other. The software knows where every robot and every item is in the warehouse at all times, so the robots can find and pick orders with impressive accuracy.

Adkins says by bringing the goods to the worker, the robots cut down on walking time, plus the amount of time it takes for an employee to find an item. Because the system is integrated with a merchant’s order management system, the robots can be programmed to pick orders as they come in, in near real time.

For, the system has sped up the fulfillment process significantly: It now takes about 45 minutes from the point where a customer clicks her mouse to the order getting onto the truck, “And it can be as short as 10 minutes,” Adkins says.

What’s more, based on initial results, Adkins says it appears the system will cut labor by up to 40%. But that doesn’t mean is going to be eliminating positions in its warehouse anytime soon.

“Everyone understands that this isn’t about job elimination – we’re not doing automation to eliminate jobs,” Adkins says. “Even with adding Kiva, we’re growing faster than the job minimization it creates. So it’s still going to net out that we’re going to need more people.

In fact, he notes, “we’re having a hard time recruiting people, so this softens that problem for us. Plus we can be more selective about who we hire.”

Read more from O&F advisor.

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