This smart robot packs potential for large retailers

THE GLOBE AND MAIL (SEP 2018) - Huge retail warehouse market seen for the Sort system, made by Canada’s Kindred Systems Inc. The man-machine hybrid features a robot arm and a grasping technology powered by reinforcement learning and, yes, that means it learns from humans

Jim Liefer, Kindred System Inc.’s chief executive officer and president.

Jim Liefer, Kindred System Inc.’s chief executive officer and president.

When Jim Liefer was vice-president of operations for Walmart’s online business, his biggest problem was finding workers to sort customer orders in the company’s warehouses. There just weren’t enough of them.

Robots should have been the solution, but there was just one issue.

“Robots have been out there for a while in manufacturing – and they’re pretty dumb,” he says. “Dumb robots can only do so much. People need to have smart robots.”

That simple realization is ultimately what led Mr. Liefer to join Kindred Systems Inc. as chief operating officer in late 2016, after a stint at the luxury furniture company One Kings Lane. Kindred, founded two years prior and co-headquartered in Toronto and San Francisco, was on a mission to add intelligence to robots.

Two years later, Mr. Liefer says the company is succeeding in that goal – making robots potentially more useful to large retailers. A number of them are now using Kindred’s Sort robotic arm, a system that can sift through products in a large bin, identify them, then arrange and organize them for further processing.

This smart robotic system, he believes, is going to be vital for companies as they further integrate e-commerce into their businesses.

“They’re all fighting for the same resource, which is the human. They can’t find the people,” says Mr. Liefer, who took over as Kindred’s chief executive officer and president this year. “All of these retailers have woken up to the fact that the biggest existential threat to their business is they just can’t find people to do the job.”

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