Crate & Barrel Warehouse Robots Cut Carbon Footprint of Retail

Can robots from MA-based Kiva Systems turn warehouses green?

Crate and Barrel thinks so.

So far, most companies have installed Kiva warehouse automation systems because they want to improve efficiencies and cut costs.

But, Crate and Barrel is betting that there’s even greater potential. The company recently purchased a Kiva system for its Tracy, Calif. Distribution Complex (DC), and it’s especially keen to see how these innovative robots can help drive carbon footprint reductions.

“Our customers expect to get great value and service from Crate and Barrel, but they also care about our carbon footprint. This played a role in our selection of Kiva Systems,” says John Ling, vice president of supply chain management and logistics at Crate and Barrel. “Kiva’s mobile robotic approach is not only the most cost-effective way to automate pick, pack and ship operations, but also the greenest. The robots themselves are energy efficient, plus the entire robot zone can be operated with almost no lighting.”

To see how Kiva’s revolutionary approach to order fulfillment works, watch this short video:

According to Mitch Rosenberg, Kiva’s vice president of marketing, the company’s unique material handling system has helped customers (including several big name retailers such as Staples, Zappos, Saks and Walgreens, as well as medical device companies like Boston Scientific) simultaneously improve productivity, speed, accuracy, and flexibility.

Now, with the help of Crate and Barrel, Kiva is going to get an opportunity to fully explore the green aspects of its robotic system, as well.

Already, several sustainability benefits can be inferred. For instance, with regard to environmental stewardship, Rosenberg says that Kiva’s warehouse automation systems:

  • Are more energy efficient than conventional warehouse carousel/conveyor systems. Traditional systems guzzle energy, and they’re typically “on,” whether they’re needed or not. By contrast, each Kiva robot uses only about as much energy as a laptop computer, and they only run when they’re actually needed.
  • Do not require controlled warehouse environments. That means Kiva robots can operate without lights, heat, air conditioning, etc.
  • Offer opportunities for incorporation of solar/wind power for warehouse operations. Since Kiva robots store power in their batteries, they could be tied into a company’s on-site solar/wind energy grid. (Plus, even when powered conventionally, these battery-powered robots can continue to work during power outages!)
  • Are portable. When warehouses consolidate or otherwise need reconfiguring, traditional carousel/conveyor systems are usually scrapped and then replaced. By comparison, a Kiva system can be easily and efficiently customized to changing warehouse needs.
  • Reduce packing errors –which in turn, reduces the extra energy and GHG emissions associated with product returns and replenishment.
  • Improve the efficiency of truck deliveries. By automatically sorting orders so they can be loaded on trucks in “reverse stop sequence,” a Kiva system helps makes deliveries faster and reduces truck idling times.

In addition, Kiva’s warehouse automation systems offer broader CSR benefits, such as:

  • Fewer injuries to warehouse employees. Traditional pick, pack and ship workers have to locate, lift and carry products, often while dodging fork trucks and other common hazards of the warehouse. What’s more, some workers walk up to 20 miles on their shift, Rosenberg says. Once a Kiva system is installed, however, workers aren’t even permitted in the “robot zone.” Instead, they monitor their stations, where the pick, pack and ship activities are much more ergonomically designed.
  • Less noise. In a conventional warehouse, fork trucks zip in and out of the aisles, blaring their warning horns as they go. Conveyor belts clang non-stop. “It’s usually like a jet way,” Rosenberg says. Kiva robots are virtually silent, and the warehouses where they work have even been described as “serene,” he adds.

Rosenberg admits that Kiva does not yet have documentation to prove the system’s green benefits –but that’s precisely what makes the company’s new collaboration with Crate and Barrel so exciting.

“We are in the business of reducing the cost of storing and shipping stuff,” he says. “But, of course, we want to be as green and socially responsible as possible. This is not the same old thing that goes 10 percent better or works 10 percent faster. This system changes the game in fundamental ways.”

Does that mean these robots can make “the game” more fundamentally sustainable? Seems to me that installing a system at Crate and Barrel’s Tracy DC –which happens to be the largest industrial facility in the country to achieve Gold designation from the U.S. Green Building Council’s Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED®) certification program –is a good first step toward answering that question.

As a corporate content specialist and a ghostwriter for C-level executives, Kathryn's work appears at Forbes, Industry Week and other leading trade publications and websites. She focuses on topics related to science, business sustainability, supply chain risk management and marketing. Find out more about Kathryn at www.CorporateWriter4Hire.com . You can follow Kathryn on Twitter: @CorpWriter4Hire.