The ‘pick-pack-and-ship’ process has been streamlined over the years by more efficient warehouse design, conveyor belts and complex collection and distribution within the warehouse that reduces the time it takes for workers (pickers) to fill most orders. It has also been improved by technologies such as handheld computers that tell pickers which item they should get next, and on what shelf, as well as Radio Frequency Identification (RFID) tags that help locates unshelved and misplaced items. But the process still depends on human ‘pickers’ moving up and down the aisles, assembling customer orders one item at a time.
The high cost of order fulfillment and inflexible technology were two of the problems Mountz struggled with at Webvan, a dot-boom-era home grocery delivery company. Mountz played a key role in Webvan - designing a distribution system fast enough to keep food fresh and customers happy, and efficient enough to keep Webvan from bleeding money.
Facing a customer base that resolutely refused to give up thumping the cantaloupe personally, and a growth plan even dot-boom analysts called overambitious, Webvan went out of business in 2001. It left behind more than $800 million in losses and a reputation excessive spending not only on warehouses and sophisticated IT, but also for such critical distribution-network enhancements such as $800 Aeron chairs for its employees.
Mountz bounced back from the Internet 1.0 bust by founding Kiva Systems in January 2003. Although he has an MBA from Harvard and three years experience as a product marketer for Apple Computer, where he worked on technologies including FireWire, DVDs and Fast Ethernet, Mountz’ background is in engineering. He has a BS in mechanical engineering from MIT, holds five U.S. patents, and spent seven years at Motorola working as a mechanical and manufacturing engineer.
Mick Mountz recently spent some time with Robotics Trends Contributing Editor John Desmond discussing the background, strategy and product development plans of Kiva, a company Robotics Business Review analyst Steve McLure calls one of the most disruptive technology companies of the decade.
Robotics Trends (RT): Can you tell me the story of Kiva Systems?
Mick Mountz (MM): Kiva got started six years ago to solve the problem of pick, pack and ship in the warehousing industry.
It is a very targeted mobile robotics application that came about from work I did at Webvan, a grocery delivery company in the Bay Area [of California] which was funded with hundreds of millions of dollars of venture capital money. It turned out to be very complex to operate efficiently and it did not scale well for that business.
Webvan ran out of cash because in part because order fulfillment was overwhelming. At the end of the day we were looking for better ways to solve the pick, pack and ship problem. I kept noodling on the problem and realized about a year and a half after I left Webvan that there was a better way to skin the cat using mobile robots.