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On Cyber Monday, Friendly Robots Are Helping Smaller Stores Chase Amazon

Last December, Amazon gave the public a rare look into the cutting-edge tech that helps it handle the constant deluge of online orders: its robots. The world’s largest online retailer has said it has tens of thousands of warehouse bots working across 10 of its US warehouses, or fulfillment centers. While the company is relying on more than 100,000 temp workers this holiday season to supplement its already massive warehouse workforce, the advantages of offloading more of that work onto machines are easy to see. Robots don’t slow. They don’t tire. They don’t get injured or distracted or sick. They don’t require paychecks or try to unionize.

Amazon’s robots were invented by a company called Kiva Systems, which Amazon acquired for $775 million back in 2012. With Kiva locked down, a new player wants to give smaller online retail rivals just a bit of that robotic advantage. Locus Robotics is an offshoot of Massachusetts-based Quiet Logistics, a third-party order fulfillment company that gets merchandise out the door for big apparel retailers like Zara, Gilt Groupe, and Bonobos. And the idea behind its bots isn’t just to replace humans but to create a system where everyone can work together more efficiently.

What most people don’t realize in the age of push-button shopping is the shopping part doesn’t disappear. You the consumer are no longer at the store doing the physical work of tracking down the thing you want. But somebody still has to do it. For e-commerce, that task typically falls to a worker at a distribution center who must locate the product, make sure it’s not damaged, and send it off to be packed and shipped. This can be grueling, tedious work. More than anything else, it’s about walking. Lots of walking. Locus aims to have its bots do the walking instead.

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