At Quiet Logistics, a Robot Fetched Your Fashion Order

Teresa Novellino
4/2/2012

Order fulfillment isn’t the sexiest side of the fashion business, but a Massachusetts-based company that deploys an army of cloud-powered orange robots finds profits in pristine packaging for luxury labels.

At Quiet Logistics, workers who might have hiked miles daily across a six-acre factory floor retrieving items for fashion shoppers can mostly stay put, and they have their silent and tireless coworkers to thank: robots.

The Andover, Massachusetts-based operation is part of Scenic Technology Corporation, which provides software automation to warehouses. In 2009, Scenic eyed its customers and opted to plunge into the order-fulfillment business with the launch of Quiet Logistics.

With the help of Kiva System robots, directed by both orders coming in from the cloud above and the QR codes on the factory floor (see video here), the company picks and packs merchandise for 32 clients, mostly fashion brands.

“We thought if we used these Kiva robots and build a new model, we had a chance to compete favorably,” said Bruce Welty, one of four partners in the private venture.

If Kiva Systems sounds familiar, it’s because on March 19, Amazon announced that it would acquire the once obscure robot maker for $775 million in cash. It was a bit of an unexpected move for Amazon, which according to Welty was sitting on the sidelines when it came to investing in fixed technology, preferring instead to invest in software and people (since the bulk of its business is in the fourth quarter, it’s easier to scale up the workforce as needed that way.)

It also means that orders from Amazon are surely going be handled by the same Kiva robots that Quiet Logistics and major retailers use to handle their own distribution uses.

How do the robots work? At Quiet, after online orders placed to its retail clients come into the factory, they are assigned to a human “picker” who may have 20 or more orders at a time. The picker stays put while multiple robots are deployed to go find the items in the warehouse, set up like Manhattan streets with long avenues and shorter streets.

Equipped with cameras facing down and cameras facing up, the Kiva robots scan QR codes that are placed on the floor and are guided to the correct shelf or "pod"—which is similarly equipped with a bar code that allows the robot to make sure it’s found the right brand and appropriate item. It then pulls the pod to the packer.

“One of the defining characteristics of robots is they have to be able to learn,” says Welty. “So, in this case, they travel around on the floor and discover these bar codes and triangulate where they are on the grid, down to the millimeter. And they know they can expect to find that bar code on the floor every time they move that position. So they just travel from bar code to bar code.”

What’s more, the robots help the factory become more efficient.

“If we have a fast-moving product, the robot will move it closer to the edge [where it is more accessible],” Welty says. “And the slow moving product will progressively cascade deeper and deeper into the warehouse.”

Then, the robots bring the item back to the picker, who scans the item and is directed by a series of lights to place it with the appropriate order. A packer (a human one that is) then packs the individual order upon completion.

Fueled by the use of Kiva, and the growth of its fashion e-commerce clients, Quiet Logistics’ own fortunes have risen dramatically. Its revenues grew 700 percent in its second year, and 400 percent in its third year. This year, it expects to grow probably 200 percent, Welty says. It employs 80 people but is scaling up to 300 to 400 workers, and is opening a factory on the West Coast.

One of its first customers was flash-sales giant Gilt Groupe, which still uses Quiet’s software, but has scaled its business to the point where it assumed control of a Lexington, Kentucky factory that is now exclusively for its own merchandise. But through Gilt, Quiet Logistics gained a foothold with numerous fashion brands and an understanding of what it takes to provide luxury packaging for the fashion industry.

“We learned a lot about how to handle premium product and keep it in pristine condition and package it up in a beautiful way and deliver it quickly,” Welty said. “And that gave us introductions to a lot of different companies, signing them up directly."

Its current customers include Zara, the Spanish fashion juggernaut, with 60 U.S. stores and 6,000 worldwide, that launched e-commerce last fall, and smaller brands like Bonobos, a fast-growing menswear brand, and specialty fashion retailers like La Garconne, The Shirt by Rochelle Behrens and Cloudveil outdoor apparel. It also does drop-shipping for one of the brands carried by a major big-box retailer and provides the order fulfillment software (but doesn't ship orders) for big companies such as Walgreens and Drugstore.com.

The main thing that differentiates Quiet from Amazon (which is somewhat of a competitor) is the type of clients and the way it customizes packages for the clients, Welty says.

While everything that is purchased from Amazon appears with its logo and standard packaging, Quiet caters to the demands of its upscale clients. Human packers neatly fold items, add tissue paper, bows and sometimes even handwritten notes to the packages sent out. This fashionable touch, and the factory's insistence upon keeping everything in pristine condition until it ships has helped them grow by word of mouth.

“People aren’t comfortable spending $200 on a dress and having it show up in a plastic bag,” Welty says. “The human being is still the best machine in the world for packing a box."


About Quiet Logistics
Quiet Logistics is the first Fulfillment to Consumer (F2C) provider that completes the eCommerce experience with an elegant mix of technology and branded packaging. Quiet delivers an exceptional, high-volume and personalized customer experience for some of the eCommerce industry’s leading fashion and apparel brands and e-tailers. www.quietlogistics.com