Do you remember when order fulfillment meant waiting for several weeks to receive a package? Now, it’s uncommon to wait more than a couple of days to receive purchases you make online. Among the major innovations behind this shift is Mobile Robotic Material Handling for Order Fulfillment, co-invented by 2020 National Inventors Hall of Fame® (NIHF) Inductee Mick Mountz.
Building Curiosity and Collaboration
The curiosity that would lead Mountz to his success as an inventor and entrepreneur was evident in his childhood. In an interview with NIHF, he noted that he believes he inherited his curiosity from his mother, who was a botanist and an amateur biologist. She saw even everyday chores as chances to experiment. Mountz recalled a particular time his mother sparked his curiosity while doing laundry: “She’d closed all the curtains and windows and door and started taking the laundry out of the dryer. And static electricity sparks were lighting up the whole room. She was showing me static electricity in the dryer.”
This inventor also developed a collaborative spirit during his early years. Having grown up in a variety of places, from Whitewater, Wisconsin, to Seoul, South Korea, Mountz learned that participating in collaborative activities like sports helped his family to quickly feel at home in a new community, and this lesson would eventually make an impact in his career. In speaking with NIHF, Mountz explained, “Having parents that challenge you to play sports, pick leadership roles, be curious — I think all of that contributes to how you move through your education process and then some of your career decisions as well.”
Transforming Distribution Centers
Mountz earned his bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and a master of business administration degree from Harvard University. He began his career with Motorola as a manufacturing engineer and later joined Apple Computer, but it was his experience at Webvan, an online grocery home delivery distribution company that is now out of business, that gave Mountz a deep appreciation for the challenges associated with material handling and distribution operations. This is what led Mountz down the path to founding Kiva Systems in 2002.
E-commerce had been growing rapidly at the beginning of the 21st century, but at the time, material handling within distribution centers still relied on decades-old techniques that could not keep pace with the rising popularity of online shopping. Having been hired by Webvan to rethink the fledgling company’s warehouse operations, Mountz realized that 70 to 80% of the warehouse labor was devoted to picking and packing, and 60 to 70% of a warehouse worker’s day was spent walking among the shelves. He knew there had to be a better, more efficient way to pick and pack orders.
With his blend of warehouse management expertise and technology insight, Mountz became the chief architect of Kiva's vision: having robots deliver inventory shelves to pick-and-pack workers for drastically more efficient distribution center operations. He began collaborating with his former MIT roommate and North Carolina State University professor Peter Wurman, who advised on the software that would guide the robots. A colleague then referred Mountz to Raffaello D'Andrea, a robotics expert at Cornell University, and D’Andrea joined the project to lead the systems architecture, robot design, robot navigation and coordination and learning-based control algorithms development at Kiva.
Staples became Kiva Systems’ first customer in 2005, followed by Walgreens, Zappos and many others. In 2012, the same year Fast Company magazine ranked Kiva Systems as one of the most innovative companies in the world, Amazon purchased Kiva, and by 2013, the online retail giant had reduced its “click-to-ship” time from 60 to 75 minutes to just 15 minutes per order.
Mountz holds more than 60 U.S. patents and is a member of MIT’s School of Engineering Dean’s Advisory Council. He and his colleagues Wurman and D’Andrea will officially become NIHF Inductees on May 7, 2020, at the 48th Annual NIHF Induction Ceremony. Look for more blogs introducing our inspiring 2020 Inductees at invent.org.