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Robots Bring Warehouse to Life – Quiet Logistics in Devens Relies on Machines

November 6, 2011: Worcester Telegram & Gazette, by Lisa Eckelbecker

DEVENS – Sometimes it’s difficult to remember that the robots at the new Quiet Logistics warehouse are just machines.

The mobile orange ‘bots, about a foot high, spin on command. They follow pathways marked on the concrete floor. They wait in traffic for other robots – and even retreat to secluded locations to recharge, when they get run down.

Al Dekin, senior vice president of sales at Quiet Logistics, said he hates to anthropomorphize technology, but …

“It’s self-organizing,” Mr. Dekin said of the system that keeps the warehouse moving. “It’s almost a living, breathing organism.”

Central Massachusetts is dotted with warehouses and distribution centers. BJ’s Wholesale Club, TJX Companies, Rotmans and other businesses all operate big facilities where people store, find and move goods.

Yet Quiet Logistics of Andover runs automated warehouses that fill orders for high-end Internet retailers, giving it a particular place in an industry known as third-party logistics. While some fulfillment companies rely on warehouses with shelves bolted to the floor and workers who move from shelf to shelf to “pick” items, Quiet Logistics has hitched its operations to robots from Kiva Systems Inc. of North Reading.

“What makes Quiet Logistics interesting is they built their whole business around Kiva Systems, and other third-party logistics companies are going with more traditional tools,” said Steve Banker, an analyst and service director of supply chain management for ARC Advisory Group in Dedham.

Quiet Logistics opened its first warehouse in Andover in 2009, added a second center in Kentucky and started operating at Devens in September, in 225,000 square feet of space previously occupied by Gillette. The privately held company expects to employ about 100 people by the holidays.

Mr. Dekin declined to say how much money Quiet Logistics invested in the Devens facility, describing it as a multimillion-dollar investment.

He also declined to name the retailer whose merchandise is flowing out of the Devens warehouse, but Quiet Logistics has signed contracts in recent months with a number of retailers. The largest may be Zara, the fast-fashion apparel business operated by Inditex Group of Spain. Bespoke shirt makers, dress manufacturers and others have outsourced fulfillment to Quiet Logistics.

“They’re extremely automated,” said Raaja Nemani, chief executive of BucketFeet Inc., a Chicago startup that uses Quiet Logistics to fill orders for BucketFeet slip-on canvas sneakers that are marketed as wearable art.

“With that said, they still have a high level of ‘touch,’ if the client requests it,” Mr. Nemani said. “That goes back to being flexible. When we talk to them, we have a very detailed conversation on how we want the package delivered.”

At the Devens warehouse, about 1,800 merchandise pods – about 8 feet high by 2.5 feet wide and 2.5 feet deep – stand in a dense grid. Overhead, transmitters send signals to robots that roll across the floor, following pathways laid out with 2-by-2-inch stickers printed with codes.

When an order comes in, the system sends robots to retrieve pods. The battery-powered robots slip beneath pods, secure themselves to the pods, and lift and then roll the pods to workers who grab items, scan labels and place the goods in plastic bins. One worker can fill 17 orders at a time.

After all items for an order have been retrieved, a worker sends the bin down a conveyor belt, where other workers remove security tags and packaging, wrap items in tissue paper and box them for mailing.

The cavernous warehouse still holds ample room for expansion, and Mr. Dekin said Quiet Logistics continues to pursue customers.

“When we make an investment in a building like this, the belief is we can fill it up,” he said.

© Copyright 2011 Worcester Telegram & Gazette.

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