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Innovation Economy

Symbotic’s 25 m.p.h robots

Jim Baum is CEO of Symbotic, a robotics firm.
Jim Baum is CEO of Symbotic, a robotics firm. Scott Kirsner

Excerpts from the Innovation Economy blog.

CasePick Systems is a company I’ve been tracking since I had my first meeting with its founder, John Lert, in 2007. At the time, Lert did not want me to write about the company but he showed me some nifty animations of how robots might be able to move merchandise more efficiently around warehouses.

I wrote about the company 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 leader.

But I didn’t get a chance to see the bots in action until last month, at the company’s Wilmington headquarters. Baum wanted to talk about the company’s new name, Symbotic, and its hiring spree. He had just returned from Newburgh, N.Y., where Symbotic’s first production system is deployed at a C&S warehouse. The warehouse assembles cases on wooden pallets, which are then trucked to Stop & Shop stores in New York. The system 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 but that companies that purchase its technology can store more product in less space.

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Baum did not want me to shoot video of the bots in action - “We’re still slightly paranoid,’’ he said - but I did get to see them moving merchandise around a test track. The bots followed white tape on the floor and used finger-like rods that extend horizontally to pull boxes off of a shelf. They communicated wirelessly with a computer that told them where to pick up and drop off the items and ensured that they would avoid collisions. They can also ride elevators.

The robots are built primarily from locally sourced components, Baum said, and are assembled in Wilmington.

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How is Symbotic different from Kiva Systems, the better-known warehouse robotics company in North Reading?

Kiva’s bots help to fill boxes; Symbotic’s bots build pallets stacked with boxes. Kiva’s short, squat bots typically move big racks of open boxes to an order-picker who removes individual items and then packs them.

One example would be filling a box with three pairs of shoes for a Zappos.com order. Symbotic, on the other hand, builds short, squat bots that grab closed boxes and bring them to another robot that puts them onto pallets to be trucked to a store.

Baum said the company will probably double in size this year, to 200 employees.

Students for start-ups

Cory Bolotsky, a student at Northeastern University, is working on a worthy new project: Startup Summer, which wants to place 100 college students in internships this year.

“The student population is by far the most valuable resource we have in Massachusetts, but we really need more good ways to integrate them into the start-up ecosystem,’’ said Bolotsky, who worked briefly for the MassChallenge start-up competition before becoming the first director of Startup Massachusetts, in December.

Startup Summer will be a major project of Startup Massachusetts, he says. Bolotsky is hoping to do a test with 100 internships this summer and eventually scale up to 500 per year.

He is working to raise state or philanthropic funding so the interns’ stipends can be subsidized.

“The ideal would be that we’d have a subsidy that would cover $3,600, for instance, and the company would pay $3,600 per intern,’’ he said.

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The program will focus on internships for software developers, designers, and general business people.

Students will be able to apply this week at startupsummer.com, and Startup Summer is looking for more companies to participate.

“The end goal,’’ Bolotsky said, “is fixing this brain-drain problem.’’


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