2020 NIHF Inductee Peter Wurman: The Software Visionary

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2020 NIHF Inductee Peter Wurman: The Software Visionary

As technology evolves, an increasing number of tasks can be performed by robots. For instance, when we shop online, it’s likely that an army of autonomous robots will help workers in a warehouse to quickly and accurately pack our purchases, allowing us to receive our orders faster than ever before. In recognition of the sophisticated solutions that keep such a system moving, Peter Wurman, co-inventor of Kiva Systems’ Mobile Robotic Material Handling for Order Fulfillment, will join the 2020 class of National Inventors Hall of Fame® (NIHF) Inductees.

 

Seeking Solutions

Since childhood, Wurman has enjoyed finding solutions to a variety of problems. For example, when he used the money given to him for his bar mitzvah to purchase an Apple II computer, there were no programs available to be used with the computer, so he learned how to program the Apple II himself.

In a conversation with NIHF, Wurman shared, “I definitely enjoy being faced with a problem and having to think of multiple ways to solve it and exploring those avenues until I can figure out a solution. It extends from little things, like when I was a kid playing games to trying to figure out how to solve Kiva’s big technical problems.”

After earning his doctorate in computer science from the University of Michigan in 1999, Wurman became an assistant professor of computer science at North Carolina State University. In 2002, he was contacted by Mick Mountz, his former roommate at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. The two began to work together on an idea initiated by Mountz — a mobile robotics solution for warehouses and distribution facilities. The following year, Mountz and Wurman were joined by Raffaello D’Andrea, who contributed to the project in the areas of systems architecture, robot design, robot navigation and coordination, and learning-based control algorithms development. Wurman would become the co-founder and chief technology officer of Kiva Systems, and he would be responsible for the system architecture and decision-making algorithms.

 

Revolutionizing Order Fulfillment

Wurman, Mountz and D’Andrea built the Kiva system by applying their complementary expertise. In an interview with NIHF, Wurman explained, “Mick knew the business problem and had the expertise to write the business plan and insights to understand the customer’s needs. I knew the software side, which allowed me to design the software architecture and the algorithms that assign resources efficiently. Raff could lead the robot design and write the control algorithms so the robots drove straight and lifted shelves reliably.” 

The team developed a computer system that wirelessly commanded Kiva’s robots in real time. Rather than relying on a single piece of software, they used software agents that ran independently on the central computer and exchanged information with each other. Within a distribution center, the Kiva system uses mobile robots to lift and move racks of inventory shelves to a shipping station, where a worker selects items for individual shipments, significantly reducing the time required from order placement to shipping.

In 2012, Kiva was acquired by Amazon. By 2013, the online retail giant had reduced its “click-to-ship” time from 60 to 75 minutes to just 15 minutes per order. “I think [the acquisition of Kiva] is a big part of their ability to do next-day and even edging into same-day shipping. Consumers also benefit because the picking quality goes up and they're more likely to get the product that they asked for,” observed Wurman.

On May 7, 2020, Wurman, Mountz and D’Andrea will be among our newest Inductees at the 48th Annual NIHF Induction Ceremony. You can find more blogs introducing our class of 2020 Inductees at invent.org.

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