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Focus: Distribution/Materials Handling

Feature Article from Our Distribution and Materials Handling Subject Area - See All

From SCDigest's On-Target E-Magazine

- March 21, 2012 -

Logistics News: In Astounding Move, Buys Robotic Material Handling Provider Kiva

Will Spend $775 Million to Acquire Boston-Based Technology Provider, an Extremely High Price; Will it Sell System to Its Competitors - or Even Have the Capacity to Do So for Years?


SCDigest Editorial Staff

In a move that will probably send some shock waves through the material handling industry, on-line retail giant announced yesterday it has acquired Boston-based Kiva Systems, a maker of robotic picking machines for distribution centers, for the incredible price of $775 million.

SCDigest Says:

Gilmore added that "It is very unusual for customers of supply chain technology to buy one of the companies that is supply it to them, but it has been done."
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Kiva, which launched its unique solution in the mid-2000s, provides a system in which bright orange robots similar in a sense to automated guided vehicles (AGVs) carry inventory and deliver it to workers at pick stations. The workers take the products they need for group of orders (generally piece picks, though the system could be used for case picking), and put them into different cartons or totes housed in a pick cart and using a pick-to-light style system to guide the operator.

After those picks are finished, the Kiva robot leaves, either to return to a stationary position until more of that product is needed (actually, more than one SKU can be placed on each robot), or the robot zooms directly off to another pick station.

The "secret sauce" is really in the controls software than keeps the robots on the move efficiently and without collisions, and placing the stationary robots in a way that delivers the most efficiency.

Kiva has had most of its success in dot com/ecommerce fulfillment centers, with high profile successes early on at and on-line retailer Zappos, which Amazon itself later acquired. Others in Kiva's still relatively small set of customers include and, which have also been acquired by Amazon, and Crate & Barrel.

The move is especially interesting as early word was that Amazon was stopping additional roll-outs of the Kiva system after it acquired Zappos in favor of its own highly tuned approach to dot com fulfillment.

Why Would Amazon Make Such a Move?

The nearly billion dollar question is why Amazon would make such a move, especially at such a high price, the biggest acquisition it has made since the $1.2 billion Zappos deal. While the move certainly made Kiva's executives, including founder and CEO Mick Mountz, and its venture capital backers, a lot of money, the $775 million price tag is extremely high, certainly many multiple of Kiva's current revenues.

Amazon will have nearly 70 distribution centers around the world in 2012, and has been adding more than a dozen per year as revenue continues to grow quarter after quarter in the 40%+ range.

While a number of factors impact the cost to implement the Kiva solution (most predominantly the number of robots deployed), those costs can be as high as $20 million for a single facility. Even with a discounted price for Amazon say in the $10 million range per DC, the current 70 facilities would be about on par with the purchase price (70 DCs x $10 million = $700 million), with more buildings to come

But of course, you can't look at it that way, as the robots won't come free to Amazon - Kiva still needs to make the robots, install them, etc., which would likely eat up well more than 50% of the "sell price."

"Amazon has long used automation in its fulfillment centers, and Kiva’s technology is another way to improve productivity by bringing the products directly to employees to pick, pack and stow,” said Dave Clark, vice president, global customer fulfillment, “Kiva shares our passion for invention, and we look forward to supporting their continued growth.”

That last sentence certainly seems to imply that Amazon intends to keep marketing the Kiva solution to other companies besides Amazon.

(Distribution/Materials Handling Story Continues Below )


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However, it seems to SCDigest that one reason for the deal might be that in the end discovered the system provides such a high level of efficiency (while removing a tremendous amount of DC labor) that it wanted to prevent at least some of its largest competitors, such as Walmart, from getting their hands on the machines. However, that is just a theory.


This is a very interesting scenario, says SCDigest editor Dan Gilmore.

"It seems very hard to me that you could justify this acquisition, especially at the very high price level Amazon is paying, if you weren't going sell this technology to others, including Amazon competitors," Gilmore said. "Whether Amazon will exclude some of its most fierce competitors from those who can acquire the system remains to be seen. One interesting point that I have not really seen mentioned thus far is that if Amazon rolls this out aggressively in its facilities, it almost certainly will so consume Kiva's production and delivery capacity that it would be hard to support implementations at anywhere but"

Gilmore added that "It is very unusual for customers of supply chain technology to buy one of the companies that is supply it to them, but it has been done," he said. "The truth is those deals have almost never worked out in the end. Will it be different this time? Amazon has paid an awfully high price, so the pressure from shareholders to make it successful will be very high."

What do you think of this Amazon acquisition? Does it make sense to you? Can it/will it succeed in the long term? Do you think Amazon will sell the system to its competitors or not? Let us know your thoughts at the Feedback section below.

Recent Feedback

I suspect most competitors will be reluctant to buy a WMS from and then have to rely on Amazon for future support of it. So perhaps Amazon strategically feels this purchase will keep game-changing innovative technology out of the hands of its competitors.

Larry Lapide
Research Allifiate
Mar, 21 2012

As a consultant in the online retail fulfilment space, this is without doubt the most interesting move I have seen. Yes, Amazon are seeking to source the technology for their own expansion and to lock out competitors. However, I think there is another key reason - as a commercial move to exploit the fundamental shift in the nature of retail fulfilment - from bulk order pallet / case picks to small order eaches and packing. In the next 5 years there is no retailer of size in the world which will not need to develop this capability. If Amazon's muscle can be applied to develop the product to be more affordable and scalable, the world's retailers (most of whom are not Amazon's direct competititors) will beat a path to its door.

Andy Powell
Agile Commerce Consulting
Mar, 21 2012

Most of the cost driver in installing a KIVA system is in building the storage pods if you have a large sku base. The costs of implementing KIVA in a large sku/small order sized environment like Amazon has plays directly to the strength of KIVA.  KIVA will be comparable in price to set up in a facility to conventional racks, bins, and conveyors. The long term savings in conveyor maintenance and labor costs (KIVA is all goods-to-man) are significant, especially if you are able to get the installs at cost by owning the company.

KIVA also only requires about a 9 foot clear ceiling height and the product can be moved from one warehouse to a new warehouse over a weekend. This allows Amazon to consider lower cost lease buildings (anybody got an empty mall?) for site location and gives them the ability to rapidly move to another site with minimal cost should the lease costs get too expensive.  No more being held hostage by a landlord because he knows it would cost you a couple of million to tear down and move an operation to a different site or that the business could not afford the disruption. 

Amazon also received a lot of bad press over the past year regarding heat and working conditions in some of it's warehouses.  Robots don't require air conditioning.  It is much cheaper to install fans and control the environment at the pick stations than to pay for cooling an entire warehouse.

$775M may seem like a lot but in the end it will turn out to be a bargain for Amazon.

Don Gilmore
Distribution Manager
NACCO Materials Handling Group, Inc.
Mar, 28 2012