For years the most delicate work has been reserved for human hands. Carefully picking items out in warehouses has been a growing place of employment for real live people as online retail has decimated service positions like cashiers and sales representatives. But now it appears robots may even be coming for the warehouse picking jobs. Soft Robotics is developing robots with “pliable grasp,” capabilities that will enable the automatons to replace humans in an even greater number of tasks.
Jennifer Smith reports:
Soft Robotics Inc., which makes pliable grippers to pick up objects from pens to pizza dough, is getting $20 million in funding to expand into the logistics and e-commerce market.
The Cambridge, Mass.-based company‘s technology is aimed at taking robots in industrial settings beyond repetitive, programmed movements by giving them the ability to pick up and move various goods of varying sizes and weights. The rapid growth of online sales, combined with a tight labor market, has companies looking for such tools in warehouses, where armies of human workers pick, pack and ship e-commerce orders.
Robots have long been used to perform repetitive tasks in factories and many warehouses. But teaching machines to pick up the wide range of products at fulfillment centers can be complicated and costly. Some companies are using artificial intelligence to speed up the learning curve for robots tasked with grasping everything from baby wipes and miniature shampoo bottles to sunglasses and plastic-bagged apparel.
Soft Robotics’s technology combines automation and vision-guided software with a gripper made of a soft polymer that molds itself around an object like an octopus tentacle. The spongy fingers can pick up an item without having to determine its weight or center of gravity, and without damaging fragile objects like tomatoes.
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