Amazon’s low key purchase of Kiva Systems back in 2012 has turned out to be one of Jeff Bezos’ best business decisions yet. By ending Kiva’s sales to competitors, Amazon has also set off a warehouse robot arms race, mostly playing out in the Boston area. The Globe writes:
Credit Amazon’s decision to stop selling robots to Kiva’s traditional customers, including rival retailers Walgreens, Staples, and The Gap. That move gave birth to a new generation of robot makers scrambling to fill the vacuum.
“Amazon has created an arms race,” said Rick Faulk, chief executive of Locus Robotics, a Wilmington company founded by Quiet Logistics Inc. an eight-year-old warehouse operator in Devens that was left high and dry by the Kiva deal. And many of the key arms merchants are located in the Boston area.
Locus is among several competitors to Kiva, which has been renamed Amazon Robotics. Others include Vecna Technologies Inc. in Cambridge, a nearly 20-year-old maker of medical robots and software, which in April unveiled a suite of machines for use in warehouses. In March, 6 River Systems of Waltham, a startup founded by former Kiva engineers, introduced a roving robot that accompanies workers as they pluck items from warehouse shelves.
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And in Somerville, another new company called RightHand Robotics has tackled perhaps the toughest challenge in the industry: building a robotic hand that can reach into a bin that is full of merchandise and pick individual items out for shipment.
Robotic warehouse gear has been in use for decades, but machines today use cameras, radios, and other sensors, along with a digital map of their surroundings, to find merchandise and avoid hitting people or obstacles.
“We’re able to map warehouses the same way autonomous cars can find their way through the streets,” said 6 River cofounder Rylan Hamilton.
The warehouse robot sector is another booming facet of Massachusetts’ already muscular robotics industry, which includes military and nautical robot builders, as well as iRobot Corp., with its popular Roomba automated vacuum cleaners. The industry has well more than 120 companies, about 4,700 employees, and revenues of $1.6 billion, according to an October 2016 report by the Massachusetts Technology Collaborative.
Warehouse robots may be the unglamorous cousins of the robot family — until you look at the bottom line. The market research firm Tractica estimates that in 2021, companies worldwide will spend $22.4 billion on warehouse robots.
Read more about the robot arms race here.