The robots wake up in a warehouse in north suburban Boston, blinking their LED lights green, red and blue as they receive instructions via wifi. They queue up at the entrance to a test course lined with yellow pylons, with engineers looking on eagerly. The bots are about five feet tall, with a hard plastic spine connecting a tablet display at roughly human shoulder-level to the squat, cylindrical base that contains their wheels and a platform for carrying goods.
Carrying goods, after all, is what LocusBots are designed to do. Their creator, Wilmington-based Locus Robotics, wants to see them rolling through warehouses around the world some day soon. For now Locus is running pilot projects, having shipped several dozen robots to prospective clients, which they say include a large home goods retailer and a global logistics company.
An explosion of e-commerce has created a huge demand for warehouse labor that is increasingly being done by robots. Industry analysts at Research & Markets say the warehouse robotics market could reach $4.44 billion by 2022.
Large retailers and third-party shipping companies are struggling to keep pace with Amazon, who bought the industry-standard warehouse robotics company, Kiva Systems, in 2012 and almost immediately took it off the market. That move sent shock waves through the business, setting off what Bloomberg last year called a “robot arms race.”
“In that analogy,” said Locus CEO Rick Faulk, “we want to be the arms dealer.”
Locus Robotics founder Bruce Welty was one of many warehouse operators using Kiva’s robots to help his company, Devens-based Quiet Logistics, ship $1 billion worth of e-commerce orders every year for fashion retailers Zara and Bonobos. Then Amazon acquired Kiva for $775 million in March 2012 and brought the company in-house. Welty was left adrift. So he decided to build his own robots.
Later this month Locus will officially open its new Wilmington office and robotics lab, where today the engineers are fine-tuning their creations. When they’re working properly, LocusBots use cameras, wifi and lasers to navigate the warehouse floor, scooting around obstacles, employees and one another as they run through their shopping list. In practice they would automatically stop in front of each item they’ve been told to gather, awaiting a human employee to pick it off the shelf and confirm the transaction on the robot’s tablet screen. Then it’s off to the next item.
That’s notably different from Amazon’s Kiva technology, in which the warehouse shelves themselves rove the human-less warehouse floor in an automated dance. The shelves shuffle toward manned packing stations on the edges of the floor, where employees pick out individual items, do quality control and package orders. It’s a custom solution that requires the building to be outfitted with sensors that help the bots navigate without running into each other.
By contrast, Locus’ solution can be grafted onto existing warehouse designs. First, a “scout robot” automatically maps the room—100,000 square feet of space can take about four hours—and shares the information with other bots via Locus’ servers. For about $35,000 per robot, it's a plug-a-play solution, according to Welty.
“We enable our customers to take on Amazon,” said Welty. “This is the biggest change for warehouses since the barcode.”
Locus isn’t the only Boston-area company trying to solve this problem. Since 2015 a group of former Kiva executives has been developing a similar system in "stealth mode." Jerome Dubois, co-founder of 6 River Systems, declined to discuss details of the company’s product but said it was targeting a similar application to Locus. Dubois worked for Kiva for five years before the Amazon acquisition. Last year their company got $6 million in seed funding and support from iRobot.
Automation in the warehouse business means greater productivity—Locus claims a 300 to 500 percent increase over human personnel—but also lost jobs. Locus and Kiva robots still need humans to pluck their items off the shelf, so it doesn’t eliminate the need for people entirely. Workers in Locus’ system play a kind of zone defense, assisting any robots that come into their section of the warehouse. Hence the company’s slogan, “robots empowering people,” which is seemingly crafted to soothe fears of robots replacing people in industries from taxi service to manufacturing.
Welty points out that the rise of e-commerce meant warehouses were already facing a labor shortage before robots came along. And there may no way to fully automate the job anyway. Welty said the “Amazon effect” of rising consumer expectations has meant more custom orders—think gift-wrapping, same-day delivery and other fine-detail, labor-intensive work that robots can’t handle.
Locus believes there is a $10 billion market opportunity in developing a viable competitor to Amazon’s Kiva robots that can keep up with the tens of billions of e-commerce orders placed every year.
“And it’s all fueled by that lowly warehouse,” said Welty.
If it doesn’t work out for Locus, however, they wouldn’t be the first Boston-area warehouse robot to fail. Last year Billerica-based Harvest Automation abandoned its warehouse sidekick robots, which followed workers around with plastic totes, pivoting toward agricultural applications.