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Transformers: The Movers


What is green, lean and loved by DC workers? Robots. Imagine a fun-sized version of StarWars’ R2D2 and you get the picture. Standing about a foot tall, these diminutive mobile fulfillment systems (MFS) have taken Staples’ and Walgreens’ distribution centers to new levels of efficiencies.

How are they green?

Rob Stevens, VP of business development for Woburn, Mass.-based Kiva Systems, manufacturer of the MFS, characterized it by saying, “Noise is wasted energy. Contrast the noise generated by miles of conveyor running through a DC with the quiet of our MFS robots.”

When not moving inventory, the robots automatically assume a sleep mode, which means they use no power and make no noise. Even when mobile, the noise is significantly less than a conveyor system. Theoretically, the energy required to run the robots is also much less than to run conveyors, although those studies are yet to be proved.

Additionally, DCs that convert to an MFS can reduce the amount of lighting in the building. For instance, Stevens described an optimized DC layout where only the periphery of the building, along the four walls, was fully lighted. DC associates worked exclusively in this outer rim, receiving freight, processing orders, packing shipments and loading trucks. Robots transported product to and from the interior of the building, where lighting was kept to a minimum but was certainly adequate for a work environment populated by automated pickers.

As for how the MFS promotes lean operations, consider what Don Ralph, senior VP of logistics operations for Staples North American Delivery said in a prepared statement last year when Staples announced it would extend the use of MFS robots beyond its initial implementation at the Chambersburg, Pa., distribution center to its Denver DC.

“The Kiva system we’ve deployed in Chambersburg has impressed us with both its speed and flexibility, but above all, it’s the most cost-effective solution we have found when it comes to split-case order fulfillment,” he stated. “When we combine the Kiva ItemFetch and OrderFetch shipping solutions in our Denver facility, we will have a new capability to intelligently pull work through the building … this system will help us to further reduce costs and increase our customer service levels.”

Stevens also shared a fun story of how Kiva assisted Staples when it decided to double the size of its MFS deployment and expand into a larger distribution space. Over the course of a single weekend, Stevens, accompanied by a handful of Staples employees, utilized the retailer’s army of Kiva robots to successfully relocate 10,000 SKUs from one DC to the larger, adjoining space.


When we talked during the recent National Retail Federation show held in New York City, Stevens likened the steady and efficient progression to an ant trail and the video he showed of the seamless move from one Staples DC to the other reinforced that description.

DC workers appreciated that the heavy lifting was managed entirely by the MFS—and this holds true for day-to-day operations as well. In fact, employees have embraced the MFS to such an extent that robots are touted as a recruiting tool.

Next on the Kiva drawing board is an even cooler solution—an MFS that can function inside a DC’s freezer zone.

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