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Warehouse Robotics – Scaling Operations for Exponential Growth, with Mark Messina

By July 5, 2023Uncategorized

I engaged in numerous discussions with robotics executives last year as I was developing ARC Advisory Group’s mobile warehouse robotics (AMR) research. I noticed that many of them obtained valuable experience at Kiva Systems (Amazon Robotics) prior to their current roles.  One such executive credited Mark Messina with Amazon’s ability to scale its rollout of Kiva Systems subsequent to its acquisition of the company. Mark Messina was an executive on my schedule of calls. Unfortunately, he and were not able to speak due to scheduling conflicts. Fast forward to the 2023 ProMat show. I stopped by the Addverb exhibition and was able to engage in a discussion with Mark, currently the CEO of Addverb Americas. I found his wealth of experience to be very informative. I asked if he would share some insights with Logistics Viewpoints readers. Thankfully, he accepted my request.

CLINT:   Mark, I came across many former Kiva Systems employees during my discussions with executives at warehouse robotics companies. What role do you believe KIVA played in Boston becoming the robotics hub that it is today?

MARK:  Kiva was absolutely fundamental to the germination of the robotics community in Boston. The organization and its culture spawned many knowledgeable people and served as a feeder for Mass Robotics and many successful robotics start-up companies in the greater Boston area, and actually, globally.

CLINT:   Can you tell us a little bit about how you landed at KIVA?

MARK:  I began my career as a mechanical engineer working in the medical device and consumer products fields. I was a CAD jockey, designing systems at Philips. HP was acquired by Philips. In general, both had amazing process and dedication to quality being in the med device space. They took a holistic approach, giving proper consideration to the integration of design, manufacturing, and maintenance. We would forward our designs to manufacturing and they would respond with the design’s shortcomings from a manufacturing perspective.  Phillips would review process often. Kiva coincidentally needed to refine its processes from that of a start-up. Without process, we could not scale. Amazon was in the midst of buying Kiva and the bots were still being hand built at that point with COTS parts. They wanted someone with design, architecture and process experience, so they brought me in to develop mechanical engineering and design.

CLINT:   What are some of the notable process changes at Kiva while you were at the company?

MARK:  As I stated previously, Kiva was hand building the units at that point. A supply chain team was also just hired to build out global sourcing and customs CM and MFG. Kiva put supply chain and design together. Amazon had announced its plans to acquire Kiva at this point, and the Amazon name also gave us greater influence with all sorts of materials suppliers and contract manufacturers. The Amazon name provided us with the huge power to product to be designed to our specs, often collaboratively. We also managed our supplier relationships onsite globally very closely to assure that the materials precisely met our design specifications.

CLINT:   What changes occurred once Amazon completed the acquisition? Did you have direct interaction with Amazon corporate?

MARK:   Amazon had an amazing culture at that time, including corporate attitude and vision. We had a meeting shortly after Amazon completed the acquisition. An Amazon senior executive bluntly said that anyone below director level exit the room. He then explained that the shelving used with the Kiva bots was essentially junk. This set us off on optimizing Kiva’s products specifically for Amazon. Amazon was great at single threading on an idea, and the ability for Kiva (then Amazon Robotics) to focused solely on Amazon’s needs was like giving oxygen to a racehorse. Amazon had the money to optimize the hardware and software. Our mantra was to have the highest quality. In fact, one of our specs was that if anything broke, we had to be able to repair a bot in 15 minutes.

CLINT:   Do you think Amazon benefited from its acquisition of Kiva Systems?

MARK:  I think they made the acquisition price back in 18 months solely on real estate savings from the use of Kiva Systems. They were incredibly efficient. We used to have to write quarterly operating plans for your particular business in Amazon. They didn’t allow Powerpoint presentations, which was great. They used operating plans in white paper format, 6 pages or less. It needed to be digestible in 5 minutes or less. The papers would be handed out to management and they would sit silent and read it. Then they would open up and provide you with feedback; they would eviscerate you for any shortcomings. If they thought it was a load of crap, they would tell you. If you missed a comma, they would hammer you. You couldn’t fudge any numbers. If you could save $0.005 on a small step in a process, that would amount to huge bottom line earnings for Amazon.

CLINT:   Those are great details. I can sense the atmosphere in the conference room. I only recently became aware of your current company, Addverb. Can you tell us a little bit about the company and its product portfolio?

MARK:  Addverb is a unique organization. The company is seven years old and it has a great deal of control over its own destiny. Addverb is very new to the global market and we are largely known as a robot maker, but Addverb is a systems integrator. We design and manufacture  our own warehouse automation subsystems and full (and robust) software suite. The company’s products integrate AGVs, AMRs, ASRS, and much more. Everything is on one very modern software platform. If you need a connector, Addverb can make it work. All microservices are on Kubernetes. The company has a great corporate culture as well. We have great dedication to leverage technology that is highly productive and the company is committed to remote work. We have expert resources around the world working remotely. Remote is a key to building an amazing staff. It’s not easy, it’s not for every organization, but we make it a great success for Addverb and our partners and clients. Using collaboration tools, we have teams working seamlessly 24/7, around the globe.

CLINT:   Where do you see the robotics market going from here?

MARK:  Robotics is still so early stage. There is so much more to come. There is still a big deficiency in sensors and algorithms. There are no commoditized tactical feedback sensors. Robots are still purpose built. I could go on and on, but robotics, in general, is still in its infancy. I foresee robots taking on form factors that can accomplish many tasks. We are on the way, but there is still so much more to come. In warehousing, there are major paradigm shifts yet to come. Addverb is working on that – completely shifting how material is moved in a warehouse – faster, accurately, and without humans, and of course scalable.

CLINT:   Finally, are there a couple of key pieces of advice you would give to a young engineer looking to break into the warehouse robotics industry?

MARK:  First, before choosing an industry, be a solid engineer, truly love your craft, or move on and find one you do. Find a company that’s innovative at its core. You’ll know it from their products. Go in, be humble, find a colleague that is a natural teacher with solid experience. Then stick with that guy until you stop learning. Don’t lose your passion. Most of all, don’t be about the money at the beginning. Your learnings and drive will build your value in the market. Become an expert, always be humble, have pride.

CLINT:   Mark, I have learned a lot of interesting insights from this discussion. And I believe Logistics Viewpoints readers will as well. Thank you for taking the time to speak with me and allowing our readers to learn from your experiences.

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