Kindred's robots help retailers handle fulfillment centers - and take on Amazon

TECH CRUNCH (NOV 2018) - Since taking the reins as chief executive of Kindred at the beginning of the year, Jim Liefer has been focused on commercializing his company’s autonomous robots. But unlike forward-projecting use cases for robots that may (or may not) one day take over for human beings in a wide swath of functions, Kindred’s current robots are purpose-built for the floor of retail fulfillment centers. That puts Kindred in the middle of an interesting business question: Given rising consumer expectations associated with online ordering, can anyone match or beat Amazon when it comes to speed, accuracy and efficiency?

With a background in operations at Walmart and One Kings Lane, Liefer asserts that his company’s core IP represents a significant advancement in retail operations. That’s because while industrial robots have worked well on manufacturing floors, robots have historically underperformed in e-commerce fulfillment centers, which require systems to handle objects of various shapes and sizes. Kindred’s approach is also notable because of its low-risk model that doesn’t require customers to make major capital investments. Instead of paying for the robot hardware, clients such as Gap pay based on the robots being able to successfully pick and sort items in a warehouse.

In the interview below, Liefer was eager to elaborate on his company’s core product, SORT. He was also happy to address the labor and throughput challenges facing Kindred’s clients as they look to thrive this holiday season. Finally, he offered his candid perspective on the ongoing debate over AI and jobs.

Gregg Schoenberg: Jim, it’s good to see you. I was interested in talking with you because Kindred is focused on the unsexy, but very important part of robot and AI technology that deals with e-commerce and gives insight into how our economy is changing. And by unsexy, I mean that your robots don’t do parkour.

Jim Liefer: Thanks, Gregg. I’ll start out by saying that sexy is in the eye of the beholder. If you came from retail operations companies like Walmart, sexy would be not having to re-engineer or re-architect my building every year to handle the next peak.

GS: Fair enough. So where has that “sexy” journey taken the company today?

JL: We’ve evolved from a research and engineering company into a customer-focused organization. Today, there are four primary components that Kindred is working on: vision capability, grasping/manipulation capability, ability to identify what’s being held onto and then placing an item somewhere.

GS: And today, your solution is being applied to retail fulfillment centers?

JL: Yes, in retail fulfillment distribution centers, but not the consumer-facing side of retail. Still, there is a tremendous amount of automation in these centers. There are sorters and power conveyance, and there are forklifts running around. But we saw gaps in those in-between moments, the need to take individual pieces from automation A to automation B. That’s where Kindred now can fill those gaps, and it’s a big market.

GS: Do you make robots or do you make cobots?

JL: We’re absolutely collaborating with the humans, but we’re not letting them get that close to the robot. We’re letting the humans do what they do best, like higher-level thinking and dealing with more ambiguity than the robot can handle.

Read the full interview here.