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November 13, 2017 Focus on Innovative Workplaces

Quiet Logistics uses robots to compete with Amazon

Photo | Grant Welker Brian Lemerise, president of Quiet Logistics

At first, it looks to be an imagination at work, or maybe the doings of ghosts: groups of tall shelves stacked with packages of clothing and moving entirely on their own.

But the 200 squat orange robots aren't that, or even the work of hidden engineers at a control panel. The robots work autonomously in perfect synchronization, never bumping into each other, even when they move within two inches of each other. They get orders, find the right shelf among 5,000, lift the shelf and nearly silently wheel it over to a worker to pick that item off the shelf and drop it into a box to be mailed.

“It's truly amazing,” said Brian Lemerise, the president of Quiet Logistics, a Devens company running two huge distribution warehouses shipping items exclusively for retailers like Bonobos, Bombfell and Tuft & Needle.

Lermerise has seen the robots in action for several years, but even he hasn't found the operation has gotten old. The technology enables Quiet Logistics to be a major shipper amid a rapidly growing e-commerce market.

A New York City customer could order a Bonobos shirt at 5 p.m. today and receive it tomorrow morning, Lemerise said, helping Quiet Logistics' retail partners stay competitive with giants like Amazon.

Quiet Logistics was a 40-employee operation when it moved from Andover seeking more space in 2011. Since then, the company has opened a second Devens center and grown to 500 workers, a number ballooning each holiday season to 1,300. The firm completed 22 million shipments in 2016.

Between the two Devens centers, Quiet Logistics has about 500,000 square feet — about eight football fields worth of space.

There's only one good way to quickly get so many goods over such a broad space out the door: lots of robots.

— Grant Welker (@GrantSWelker) October 25, 2017

The 200-pound robots, which are about the size of a dishwasher but half as tall, use Wi-Fi to receive orders and communicate with each other, and track their location using a grid of small coded stickers placed every about every two feet on the floor. They automaticaly move to a charging station when they notice their power getting too low.

The whole operation could almost seem intimidating if it weren't for the play-on-word names each robot was given through an employee contest, like 2Bot2Handle or Boticelli.

Ironically, the larger of the two Quiet Logistics centers uses robots by a company now owned by Amazon, North Reading-based Kiva Systems. After that 2012 deal, Quiet Logistics was given until 2019 before Kiva would stop servicing the bots.

Quiet Logistics wasn't deterred. It's simply started making its own through a related company called Locus.

Locus, which sells its technology to other distribution companies, uses robots differently. Robots carry baskets workers fill once those robots stop at the right display. The robots then take the merchandise to be shipped.

The Locus robots use the company's own technology and cost 40 percent of the cost of Kiva's, Lemerise said. They constantly monitor their surroundings so they never bump into their human counterparts always surrounding them.

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