When Amazon acquired Kiva Systems in 2012, other retailers and third-party fulfillment centers panicked. The e-commerce giants took Kiva’s robots off the market, leaving their competitors without an important productivity tool. Lots of newcomers have cropped up to help warehouses keep up with demand since then, but one of the most hotly anticipated robots in this space was under wraps — until today.
Based in Waltham, Mass., 6 River Systems, Inc. is finally making their “collaborative fulfillment system” available for purchase. Founded by former Kiva executives Jerome Dubois and Rylan Hamilton with Mimio’s Christopher Cacioppo, 6RS named its flagship robot Chuck after the Charles River.
Dubois said, “Chuck looks like a pick cart they already use in warehouses. It is autonomous and navigates on its own. And here’s the golden egg, it leads the associate through their work.” In other words, the robots were designed to collaborate alongside humans, not replace them.
Chuck is about 3 feet long, 2 feet wide and stands up to 4 feet tall with a shelf at about 3.5 feet. Height can be adjusted to match what’s comfortable for most workers.
To guide workers to pick items off the shelves quickly, Chuck has an 11-inch touchscreen, which shows them where to find something on a packed, warehouse shelf. The screen displays images of the items a worker is about to pick, the quantity they’ll need to pick and the numeric ID on the item like a SKU or barcode. And it lets workers know which direction they’ll be heading next.
Sensors and software allow Chuck to track data and give feedback to workers, celebrating the moment they achieve a personal best, for example, or alerting them to areas for improvements, Dubois explained.
Dubois said, “From a data perspective, we can also provide information to warehouse operators who today rely on paper and clipboards to make a lot of decisions about staffing. They’ll be able to understand, in real time, how is their warehouse operating. And they’ll see if you have a really hard time in Aisle 5 with these kind of items but do a really great job in Aisle 9 with different inventory.”
The startup will compete with other industrial robot makers, like Locus, Fetch, IAM, Rethink and others. Their robots all take a different form, of course. IAM robots pick items using an arm and a suction cup. Fetch robots are used in pairs, with one robot finding the way and another carting inventory or performing tasks. And Locus Robotics units navigate autonomously, through the aisles of a warehouse, calling nearby workers to put specific items into the carts.
Eclipse Ventures partner Seth Winterroth, who invested in 6RS’s $6 million seed round, said now that the robots are on the market, “I expect 6RS will integrate systems on site with customers, and have those customers experience substantial increases in efficiency from a throughput perspective, then get ready to deploy them in larger volumes.”
Winterroth emphasized that many companies in this space are building intriguing technologies, but the winner in this market will need to focus on what really happens in a warehouse environment and help workers safely increase their pick rates.
The new 6RS robots will be on display at ProMat in Chicago next week, an important trade show for geeks in supply chain, manufacturing and automation.