Businesses adopting robots for new tasks

But will the machines and their ilk take away jobs -- even white-collar ones?

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Now, people are "focused on other aspects of the business -- receiving products and packing orders," says Pearson. "And because of growth, they're able to be more efficient in the work activities that add value to the work we do."

Additionally, having the system means Think Logistics can ship more orders than it could have previously with the same number of people, and it can ship those orders more quickly. "We look at it as a force multiplier," he says.

The system has some built-in intelligence, so if there is existing inventory of the same item being received and stored on a mobile shelving unit and the retailer's instructions allow for it, the system will consolidate that inventory before utilizing empty bins. For example, Pearson says, "if I have an iPhone 5 in a location and room for two more, and if business rules permit you to put more there, it will bring you the product and say, 'Here's space for two more.' And conversely, if you tell the system that has to receive 20, it will look for a space for 20. So it's very dynamic that way."

Think Logistics can enhance the configuration options Kiva provides, and it can tailor the way it uses a system to match a retailer's needs.

Pearson estimates that Think Logistics will see a return on its multimillion-dollar investment for the 15 units in approximately two years. He says the company purchased more capacity than it needs "so we can quickly onboard new clients as we grow our business."

Packing funky parts

K'NEX Brands, a maker of toy construction sets based in Hatfield, Pa., recently started using a $30,000 robot named Baxter to help with quality control for parts packaging for multiple products shipped to more than 30 countries. Developed by Rethink Robotics, Baxter packs parts without scratching or bending them, cutting down on the cost of replacements, according to Michael Araten, K'NEX's president.

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