nominator(s) Greg Klemmer & Tim Brodigan | Colliers International
interviewee Bruce Welty, Co-Founder/Chairman | Locus Robotics & Quiet Logistics
The genesis of Locus Robotics is a very unique one. Can you provide a brief explanation of how Locus came to be and who you essentially have to thank for it?
Locus was formed to address the void created by Amazon’s purchase of Kiva Systems, Inc. The company was incubated inside our eCommerce fulfillment company, Quiet Logistics, which used Kiva’s robots. Quiet’s entire business model was built on the premise that we could use robots to increase accuracy and speed and decrease the costs associated with picking/packing/shipping an eCommerce order. When we lost access to the robot, we realized that Quiet’s business model was at risk.
When you first learned that Kiva would no longer be a permissible solution for Quiet Logistics, did you explore other robotics alternatives, or did nothing comparable exist?
Yes, quite extensively including a round-the-world tour of every company we could find that had an industrial robot that was applicable. We visited Asia, Europe and North America, probably 20 companies in all and came to the conclusion that in order to be successful in this space it was necessary to have a deep understanding of the needs of a fulfillment operation, and that the robot was a small part of the overall solution. Initially, we did not think of Locus as a stand-alone company but soon it became clear that there was a very big need in the market for this solution and we should commercialize it.
How long after the news did it become clear (and realistic) that the only solution would be to invent a new robot?
We spent about 18 months evaluating our options. Initially Kiva reassured all of its original customers that we would continue to have access to the solution, so we were not concerned. However, once it was announced, we had a very good idea of what we wanted to do. Despite the assurances from Kiva that Amazon would support the existing customer base, it became clear to us that we had a single-supplier risk that we needed to address anyway. It became clear to us that we had the insight and skills needed to build our own robot.
You have said there were aspects of the Kiva robots that you would have changed to work better for QL’s operations. When given the opportunity to begin robot creation from scratch, what elements of the Kiva robots were important to remain and what changed?
Rather than focus on how Kiva works, we decided to do what we could to make Locus a better, faster, and cheaper system. There were 10 aspects of the Locus solution that we thought were important to include:
- Goods-to-Person Systems like Kiva require expensive infrastructure for storage – We decided to follow a model where we could use existing infrastructure and not require our customers to retrofit their storage media. This would be much less expensive and risky for our customers.
- The Locus System needed to be light enough to operate on a mezzanine to support vertical expansion.
- The Locus robots needed to weigh less than 100 pounds so they could safely interoperate (share space) with human workers.
- The Locus robots needed to ensure that items would not fall on to the floor.
- The Locus robots needed to be good at avoiding obstacles.
- The Locus robots needed to have an enclosed housing to be tolerant of dusty conditions inherent to warehouses.
- The Locus system needed to equally enhance picking and put-away (stowing).
- The Locus system needed to rely on and operate well with the existing inventory maintained in the WMS, and not have its own inventory.
- The Locus database needed to be open to the user community so that Big Data and Optimization could be performed by the customers’ IT staff.
- Locus needed to have a robust and responsive Support and Maintenance operation that (1) quickly responded to customer inquiries, enhancement requests and bug reports and (2) released new versions of the software on a regular basis.
The greater Boston area seems to have a relatively active robotics ecosystem, between the strong robotics program at UMass Lowell, intellectual capital coming out of Cambridge, companies such as iRobot, etc. Where did Locus obtain the talent it needed to begin robot construction?
We developed a close relationship with Olin College, as well as Harvard, MIT, and WPI. There are many strong people coming out of these schools. In addition we have hired many ex-Kiva, ex-iRobot, ex-Rethink, ex-SyFi Works, and ex-BlueFin robotics people. There is a strong cohort of robot experts in this area, probably more so than any other single geography, including Silicon Valley. However, there are still not enough!
What is the specific functionality of the new robot? How is that an improvement – at least from QL’s perspective – over Kiva's
When we designed the LocusBot, we took into account all of the things about Kiva we did not like. Locus is better-faster-and-cheaper than Kiva. We interoperate with humans and don’t have our own inventory database. It is less disruptive, less risky and quicker and easier to install.
- Faster by 2/3
- Cheaper by 55%
- Adapts easily to existing warehouse infrastructure and employee workflows
Do your robots reduce the need for employees?
We seem to have an unlimited need for employees even with the robots. These jobs are all new…because the eCommerce phenomenon is new...but they are difficult to staff because the work is hard, the pay is low, and warehouses are in the middle of nowhere.
What are the biggest challenges facing Locus?
Right now, we are working to solve the edge and corner cases of robots traveling around a warehouse. Mapping, Navigation, Localization, and Route Planning are a new science. Our robots need to localize (know where they are) within millimeters and there is no “indoor GPS”). Plus, there are lots of challenges in warehouses (dirt, debris, obstacles, moving equipment, people) that the robots need to learn to see and avoid. We are closing in on 100% but we will need to be at least at 99.9% capable to be comfortable. In addition, we are building a manufacturing capability at the same time so we can address the huge demand. At present, we are installing 4 new customers simultaneously and building robots as fast as we can. Extreme growth is a major (but fun) challenge.
From a real estate perspective, Boston is an extremely supply constrained industrial market. In your opinion, are robots the solution to helping us do more with less? What do you think a warehouse will look like in 20 years?
Boston is constrained, but it is a proxy for all cities in the world. Supply of large industrial buildings near population centers is limited and expensive. However, the expectation of the consumer (to receive goods same/next day) requires that we figure out a way to put inventory close to them. We believe warehousing will bifurcate into large mega-warehouses in rural areas for feeding stores and smaller stand-alone eCommerce warehouses and inside-store stock-rooms for filling eCommerce orders. We also think that innovative retailers will put our robots into their stores (amongst the shoppers) to make available store inventory to eCommerce orders.
In working with Greg Klemmer and Tim Brodigan to identify space for Locus to lease, what were some of the key criteria taken into consideration?
We have had many interactions with Greg and Tim over the years. We have rented nearly a million SF with them, ranging from large warehouses to small office spaces. We are on a mission to rent every building on this one street in Wilmington. So far I think we have signed 6 different leases on it. We have found Greg and Tim to have a super-strong knowledge of what is available and what we need and they intuitively know where we would feel comfortable. We have found them to be an exceptional partner.
How would you describe your company culture, types of employees and overall work environment?
Fast growth, high-tech in a low-tech business, heavy learning, hard work, rewarding with opportunity for the associates. We have employees that work for an hourly wage that have the opportunity to learn the business from the ground up. We try to train and promote from within wherever possible. We also hire PhD level engineers to work on hard math problems. It is a dynamic and challenging work environment.
When it comes to robotics, the sky seems to be the limit. Are there any non-fulfillment problems that Locus will look to solve next, or do you see this as your niche?
Our first goal is to address the demand to fulfill eCommerce orders. Once that is under control, we will expand into other markets like store fulfillment, manufacturing, and other geographies.