Bruce Welty never wanted to build robots; Amazon.com made him do it. Starting in the 1970s, Welty, 60, specialized in software for managing warehouses. In 2009, he shifted gears and founded Quiet Logistics, a company that used robots from Kiva Systems of North Reading to dramatically reduce warehouse operating costs. But three years later, retailing titan Amazon.com acquired Kiva, cutting off Welty's robot supply. He saw only one hope — build his own robots. His new company, Locus Robotics of Wilmington, has developed a sleeker, cheaper automaton, and Welty hopes to put it to work in warehouses around the world. He recently spoke about the winding path from warehousing expert to robotmaker.
1. After studying math and computer science at Colorado College, Welty, a Concord native, found himself designing warehouse management systems.
"I was part of the team of people, massive teams, that would come in to write software. I just fell into it. It was one of those things I started pretty much right out of school. They put me on a warehousing project and then that led to another warehousing project, and pretty soon that was all I was doing. It was fundamentally a math problem, and I was into math problems. It's easy to pick, pack, and ship an order, but it's very hard to pick, pack, and ship 10 million orders. It's really a complicated problem. There are all sorts of challenges."
2. Welty founded a warehouse software company in 1987 and sold it in 2001. By 2009, he and Quiet Logistics cofounder Michael Johnson realized the rise of robots would enable a new kind of warehouse, in which robots did most of the heavy lifting.
"I resisted at first because I really didn't understand the concept of robots in the warehouse. I thought it was silly. But when I finally relented and went to see it, I was pretty impressed with it. I just thought it was the coolest thing, and it solved all the nitty-gritty little problems that we had been struggling with for all those years. . . . We said, 'Jeez, if we deployed this technology and added our software and expertise, and then made a warehouse, we would have a cost advantage and a capability that nobody else in the industry had.' And you know what? We were right. And we were so right that Amazon came along and bought Kiva."
3. But from disaster came opportunity, as Welty realized he could save his company and launch a new one by building a better warehouse robot.
"We didn't think Kiva was perfect. It had some things we wanted to do differently to make it even better. We ended up saying, if we really do have a need for a robot and we know exactly what it should do, and we had this vision in our minds of how to make the perfect robot, why don't we just do it? So that's what we did."
4.The warehouse business turned Welty into something of a travel junkie.
"They build warehouses in the middle of the country where land is cheap and labor is available. Yeah, I travel a lot. It's just part of the job. I've been doing it since 1979. I've saved every single boarding pass since 1979."
5. If you think that sounds obsessive, you're right. Welty is one single-minded man.
"When I get into something, people will tell you I get deeply into it, to the exclusion of all else. When I was younger, it was skiing, and then tennis and then squash. I was a nut about squash. I played competitively for 40 years.
"And I'm somewhat obsessed with this presidential campaign right now. It's just occupying too many brain cells. I'm obsessed because I find it to be troubling about what it says about our country."