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Low-key CasePick systems developing robotic systems for warehouses, in collaboration with NH-based grocery distributor

Posted by Scott Kirsner  December 15, 2010 12:54 PM

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I first met CasePick Systems founder John Lert more than three years ago, when we was just one guy in a shared start-up space in Cambridge. His vision was to use mobile robots to make warehouses operate much more efficiently. Since then, CasePick has grown into a company with nearly 50 employees, and it's still on a hiring spree, with about a dozen open engineering jobs.

And sometime in 2009, Wilmington-based CasePick was acquired by one of its early backers, C&S Wholesale Grocers, a privately-held New Hampshire company that describes itself as the country's biggest wholesale grocery distributor.

But throughout, CasePick has been extremely quiet — they've never issued a single press release — unlike Kiva Systems, the better-known Massachusetts company developing new "material handling" systems for warehouses that incorporate robots.

Just about everything that's public about CasePick's technology is described in a single patent that was issued to CasePick last fall, but filed back in 2004. It decribes a network of pathways in a warehouse that are traveled by autonomous vehicles. The vehicles are able to load or unload an item using a "transfer arm" that can pull a cardboard box, for instance, off of a shelf where its stored. Merchandise would be stored on multiple levels in the warehouse, with the mobile robots able to travel up and down ramps. (One source tells me that in the current instantiation of the system, there are elevators for the bots to ride.) CasePick calls its bots T3Vs, for "Track-guided Transfer and Transport Vehicles," and the company was issued a trademark earlier this year for the term T3V, covering "automated transport vehicles for use in moving and carrying items in warehouses, order fulfillment centers and other storage facilities."

A spokesman for Kiva Systems said that the Woburn company hasn't been running into CasePick much as a competitor, as it pursues new customers. That could be because CasePick is focusing on rolling out its technology first in facilities owned by C&S. The grocery distributor is currently hiring employees who will be responsible for running CasePick systems in at least one of its facilities in New York.

The CasePick system sounds like it requires a whole lot of bolted-down infrastructure, like ramps, pathways, elevators, and special racks to hold product. That means a big up-front investment for potential users — though it isn't clear at this point whether C&S wants to sell the technology to others, or simply use it internally for C&S' own competitive advantage.

Several employees who were part of the original CasePick team have left the company following the C&S acquisition, and many of the current top executives, including president Robert Sullivan, joined CasePick from Brooks Automation in Chelmsford.

Executives at C&S declined to be interviewed. Founder John Lert wouldn't comment, beyond writing in an e-mail, "Yes, I have to admit that the technology is very cool. It’s quite awesome to watch."

Asked about CasePick, which has hired away at least one iRobot engineer, iRobot CEO Colin Angle said via e-mail that he didn't know too much about CasePick, "beyond the fact [that] they seem to be a Kiva competitor. At 700 Bedford employees, [it's] not surprising there is some human capital mobility from iRobot to start-ups. [That's] one of the benefits of having an industry anchor company in a geographic location. :)"

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About Scott Kirsner

Scott Kirsner was part of the team that launched Boston.com in 1995, and has been writing a column for the Globe since 2000. His work has also appeared in Wired, Fast Company, The New York Times, BusinessWeek, Newsweek, and Variety. Scott is also the author of the books "Fans, Friends & Followers" and "Inventing the Movies," was the editor of "The Convergence Guide: Life Sciences in New England," and was a contributor to "The Good City: Writers Explore 21st Century Boston." Scott also helps organize several local events on entrepreneurship, including the Nantucket Conference and Future Forward. Here's some background on how Scott decides what to cover, and how to pitch him a story idea.

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