January 2009 | Case Studies | Casebook

Materials Handling Equipment

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Robots do the heavy lifting at Staples' Denver distribution center, and they never call out sick.

If robots in the workplace make you think of a scene from a 1950s science fiction movie, think again. These versatile tools are used today to bring efficiency to many warehouses and distribution centers (DCs). For example, Framingham, Mass.-based office products company Staples Inc. is breaking fulfillment records by using robots in two of its DCs. One facility, a 300,000-square-foot DC in Denver, was designed specifically to benefit from a robotics system created by materials handling technology provider Kiva Systems, Woburn, Mass.

Staples chose Kiva to help design its Denver DC after a previous success with the company in 2005. At that time, Staples' labor-intensive fulfillment processes were a weak link in its supply chain. The company's 500,000-square-foot Chambersburg, Pa., distribution center was nearly maxed out and experienced frequent fulfillment delays.

Staples first considered expanding the facility by adding conveyor belts, materials handling equipment, and staff, but ultimately chose a different direction. In January 2006, Staples introduced Kiva's robotic ItemFetch system in a 50,000-square-foot portion of the Chambersburg facility. The split-case picking system quickly reduced costs and increased efficiency, achieving more than twice the throughput per picker than a conventional pick-and-pack system. A typical conveyor-based operation allows workers to pick 200 to 400 items an hour; Kiva allows them to pick 600 to 700 in the same time.

During the past two years, Staples expanded its Chambersburg facility to 650,000 square feet, with 140,000 square feet dedicated to the robotic system, which handles 45 percent of the DC's total volume.

On the heels of the Chambersburg installation's success, Staples tapped Kiva to help design the Denver facility, one of many Staples fulfillment centers providing fast delivery to home office and small business customers who place orders via Staples' Web site and print catalogs, as well as corporate customers who order primarily through StaplesLink.com.

One of the new facility's goals was to reduce fulfillment costs and maximize operational speed and flexibility. "Our target was the "perfect order,'" explains Dave Carr, fulfillment center manager for Staples' Denver facility. "The order has to be correct, complete, on time, and in the condition the customer expects."

FAST AND FLEXIBLE

The Denver facility was set to open in June 2007. "Because Denver was a new market for Staples, it was looking for a system that could start small and get up to speed quickly, but also have the flexibility to expand as needed," says Mick Mountz, Kiva's founder and CEO.

Staples selected the same ItemFetch system used in its Chambersburg facility, as well as shipping solution OrderFetch, a Kiva product line extension.

MEET THE ROBOTS

ItemFetch robots measure about two feet high and three feet long, and are encased in orange plastic shells. Kiva employs mobile robotic drive units to route items and order containers to operator stations for picking and packing. A computer functions as both dispatcher and traffic controller, instructing the robots which racks to bring to specific workers without colliding with other robots in the process.

When orders come in, the computer directs the robots to the racks containing the items necessary for fulfillment. The robots navigate by reading two-dimensional bar-code stickers spaced one meter apart across the floor. ItemFetch uses standard K-Series robots, which can lift more than 1,000 pounds.

The ItemFetch robots slide beneath the racks, lift them into the air, and carry them to pick-and-pack stations around the warehouse perimeter. Workers pull the products they need from the racks, then the robots return the racks to their proper locations.

Over time, the computer identifies pick frequency patterns, then instructs robots to place frequently used racks closer to the pick-and-pack stations, and to place less frequently used racks farther away.

OrderFetch provides shipping sortation. "It stores, moves, and sorts order containers in their various forms: empty, partially filled, filled, and finalized," explains Mountz.

THE PICK PROCESS

When the Denver facility receives an order to fulfill, the warehouse management system (WMS) loads it into the Kiva system. OrderFetch presents the order at a picking station with a pick-to-light system. An ItemFetch robot then travels to the inventory pods where items are stored and brings back a pod to the picking station.

"The picker grabs the items and performs a validation scan or UPC scan to confirm that the material is correct," says Carr.

When all the customer containers are completed, the OrderFetch pod shifts into the shipping application.

"OrderFetch pulls the order off one of the pods and scans it," Carr says. "The system gives the order a packing slip, pushes it through for dunnage and tape, then loads it on a trailer."

Denver currently has approximately 150 K-Series ItemFetch robots on site, along with 1,800 inventory pods and 200 order pods.

As in Chambersburg, the Denver facility realized double the productivity of a traditional picking system. But while the results have been impressive, Carr emphasizes that success is the result of the proper interaction between Staples employees and Kiva's technology.

Staples strives to hire the most qualified people and provide them with the best working conditions possible. Kiva helps Staples meet that goal. "Kiva technology ensures a quiet environment, which makes it easier for workers to concentrate," says Carr.

CASE IN POINT

At the Denver facility, workers will soon have another system to lend them a hand. Staples is currently implementing Kiva's full-pallet storage system, CaseFetch, which uses large R-Series robots that can lift more than 3,000 pounds.

CaseFetch transports pallets that are fork-loaded into mobile pod bases at pick and drop locations. The mobile robotic pods then transport the pallets to storage areas.

To boost fulfillment accuracy and efficiency in its distribution centers, Staples relies on human and robotic laborers working together. That's not science fiction; it's 21st-century reality.

THE NUTS & BOLTS OF ROBOTIC TECHNOLOGY

Wondering how all those robots and systems work together to put inventory in the right place? Here's a floor-level view of each process.

For split-case picking, where operators pick items from cases and pack them into shipping totes or cartons, mobile robotic drive units bring inventory pods to workers, who use a simple pick-to-light/put-to-light interface to fill each order. The operator completes the entire order without moving.

Case picking provides operators with access to any pallet in the DC, allowing them to pick full cases as well as individual items. When a pallet enters the building, it is placed onto a pod base that is moved to storage by a mobile robotic drive unit.

With mixed-pallet building, operators can build pallets with a variety of full cases, layering the pallet according to any specified sequence. The mixed pallet can then be routed directly to the shipping dock to be loaded onto a specific truck.

Shipping sortation allows completed split-case orders to move directly to the shipping area at the right time, in the right sequence. Split-case orders are picked into cartons or totes on shipping pods. When the orders are complete, the pod is either temporarily stored or travels directly to the dock door, where it is combined with other split-case and full-case orders to fill a particular truck.

For split-case replenishment, robots automatically deliver cases to stockers for replenishment of the forward picking area. This real-time replenishment process dramatically reduces forward stockouts, while improving storage efficiency.

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