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Zappos tries robots on for size

Online retailer is using a robotic army inside its Kentucky warehouse to help fill orders.

Zappos.com, the online retailer with free shipping both ways, has hired little orange robots to carry your shoes.

Actually, the company, which now sells more than just shoes, has just finished outfitting it's Kentucky warehouse with a robotic army to help fill orders, the company supplying the system announced Tuesday.

Zappos is now using Kiva robots to helps its workers fill orders. Kiva Systems

The Kiva Mobile Fulfillment System from Massachusetts-based Kiva Systems, is basically a team of autonomous, stout, orange robots that sort, store, and move inventory in warehouses. The robots essentially bring the assembly line to the warehouse worker to fill orders more quickly.

Instead of having people walking around a warehouse with a cart and looking for ordered items to put into boxes, the robots automatically bring the items to them.

Retail items are kept in crates or moveable shelves, which Kiva calls pods, instead of on conventional warehouse shelves. Once you place your order, a robot is notified by a Kiva server over a Wi-Fi network. It then autonomously drives around the warehouse, picking up the pods containing your items and stacking them as part of its load. The robot then brings those pods to a warehouse worker at an assembly station who fishes out your items from each pod and places them in a box. The person then places your box on another robot that automatically knows where to go to have the box shipped from the warehouse. Another robot with other pods is already then waiting in line for the worker to pack the next order.

Kiva's claim to fame is that its software is expert at calculating which robots should pick up which pods, in what order it should pick them up based on their location at the time, which worker it should deliver them to, and which paths it should take to do all of that in order to maximize time and efficiency.

Supporters of the robotics industry have said that using robots controlled by U.S. workers to cut costs could provide a viable alternative to outsourcing jobs from the U.S. The Zappos decision may be an example of that predicted trend.