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Symbotic, formerly known as CasePick Systems, de-stealths a bit with a demo of its warehouse robots

Posted by Scott Kirsner  January 30, 2012 08:15 AM

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CasePick Systems is a company I've been tracking since I had my first meeting with its founder, John Lert, on a Friday afternoon in the fall of 2007. Lert didn't want me to write about the company at the time, but he showed me some nifty animations of how an army of robots might be able to move merchandise more efficiently around warehouses.

I've written about the company throughout the years, like when it was acquired by C&S Wholesale Grocers, a privately-held New Hampshire company, and when it named Jim Baum, formerly chief executive of the data warehousing firm Netezza, as its new leader. (Lert, the founder, moved on last year.)

But I didn't get a chance to see the bots in action until last Friday afternoon, when Baum (pictured at right) invited me over to the company's Wilmington headquarters to see a demo. He wanted to talk about the company's new name — it'll be known starting today as Symbotic — and also the hiring spree its on. (Baum mentioned they're about to outgrow the Wilmington facility, and are hunting for new space.)

Baum had just returned from a company event in Newburgh, New York, where Symbotic's first production system is deployed at a massive grocery warehouse owned by C&S. The warehouse assembles cases of merchandise onto wooden pallets, which are then trucked to Stop & Shop stores around New York. The Symbotic system only operates a portion of that warehouse, but it consists of 168 bots that move boxes at up to 25 miles per hour.

Symbotic's proposition is that bots are not only more efficient at moving product onto and off of warehouse shelves as needed, but that companies that purchase its technology can store more product in less warehouse space.

Baum didn't want me shooting any video of the bots in action — "we're still slightly paranoid," he said — but I did get to see them moving merch around a test track. (See the image below.) The bots followed white tape on the floor, and used finger-like metal rods that extended horizontally to pull boxes off of a shelf. They communicated wirelessly with a central computer that told them where to pick up and drop off the items, and also ensured that they'd avoid collisions which each other. They can also ride elevators to get from one level of a warehouse to another.

While C&S remains the majority owner of Symbotic, Baum says that he hopes the company will do its first non-C&S deployment sometime in 2012. "One reason we haven't had to talk much about what we're doing is we have an amazing pipeline of business," he says. "The connection to C&S has give us an opportunity to talk to very big, very risk-averse buyers."

How is Symbotic different from Kiva Systems, the better-known warehouse robotics company located just a few miles away in North Reading? Kiva's short, squat bots typically move big racks of open boxes to an order-picker who removes individual items and then packs them into a box that'll be sent to a customer. One example would be filling a box with three different pairs of shoes for a Zappos.com order. Symbotic, on the other hand, builds short, squat bots that grab closed boxes of merchandise and bring them to another robot (made by a third-party vendor) that puts them onto wooden pallets, at which point they're loaded onto a truck and sent to a retail store. Kiva's bots help to fill boxes full of items, and Symbotics' bots build pallets stacked with boxes.

Baum says the company will probably double in size this year, to 200 employees. As he has been setting up Symbotic as an independent company, he has also created a board of directors that includes Tony Affuso, chairman of Siemens PLM Software, and Jit Saxena, the founder of Netezza.

One last note: Baum tells me the robots are built primarily from locally-sourced components, and assembled in Wilmington.

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Photo: Two Symbotic robots move boxes around a simulated warehouse; they navigate by following the white tape on the ground.

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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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