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Robotics companies getting a grip on e-commerce

(David L. Ryan)

The objects rolling down the conveyor belt resembled an explosion in a toy store. Dolls, a toy car, plastic vegetables — different sizes, different shapes. Ten items in all.

And then they were gone. A spindly-armed robot snatched each toy as it rolled past, dropped it into a plastic bin, and then grabbed another one. It was all over in less than 10 seconds, thanks to the blazing speed of the robot, but also the dexterity of its hands — soft rubber fingers that can instantly, firmly, and gently seize almost any small object, from a tennis ball to a fresh egg.

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The hands are made by Soft Robotics, a Bedford company that’s using innovations from Harvard University’s chemistry labs to develop strong but delicate robotic hands. Soft Robotics is facing off against a nearby rival with an Ivy League pedigree of its own: RightHand Robotics, of Somerville, founded by scientists from Harvard and Yale universities and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Between them, the two companies are leaders in the effort to master an activity that’s trivial for humans but ferociously tough for machines: picking stuff up and putting it down. It’s a tedious task, but worth billions of dollars to a multitude of industries, especially e-commerce retailers like Amazon, that are looking for cheaper, faster ways to get merchandise packed and out the door.

Amazon is automating the process any way it can. The Reuters news service reported this month that Amazon was working with an Italian company whose product automatically builds a box around a customer’s purchases, reducing the need for packing by hand.

In 2017, Amazon sponsored a “picking challenge” contest, in which robot engineers from around the world demonstrate machines intended to pluck items from a bin and pack them in shipping boxes without human intervention.

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So far, none of these machines have measured up to Amazon’s standards. Scott Anderson, Amazon’s director of robotic fulfillment, said in April that a totally automated Amazon warehouse was at least 10 years away. The problem, said a robotics industry analyst, Dan Kara of WTWH Media, is that robots still can’t be trusted to carefully pack multiple items into a single box.

“That’s the part they haven’t been able to solve yet,” Kara said. “They still need people to do that.”

But shipping and warehousing companies of every size are desperate for human workers, because it’s a lousy way to make a living. “There are just some jobs that people shouldn’t be doing,” said Soft Robotics’ chief executive, Carl Vause. “And this is one of them.”

Warehouse work is low-paying, strenuous and dull, so turnover is high. The commercial real estate brokerage CBRE Group predicted warehouses would need to hire 452,000 workers in 2018 and 2019 to keep up with demand. But with unemployment rates so low, there are lots of better jobs out there. Besides, warehouses tend to be in rural areas or distant suburbs, where land is cheap but workers are scarce.

So Vause isn’t worried that robots equipped with his company’s grippers will put people out of work. “We’re seeing customers come to us saying, ‘We can’t produce. We don’t have the people,’ ” he said.

Soft Robotics makes grippers out of plastics developed in the lab of Harvard chemist George Whitesides. Designed to mimic octopus tentacles, the plastic grippers become rigid when filled with air, but remain flexible enough to avoid damaging the items in their grasp.

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In addition, the company has developed software that processes a visual image of each item to be picked up, so the hand will grab it at the correct angle while applying the right amount of pressure.

Unlike some other robotic grippers, Soft Robotics hands are suitable for handling food, including fruits, vegetables, candy, and cake. That has opened up markets well beyond the warehouse.

For instance, Boston Conveyor and Automation Corp., of Newburyport, uses Soft Robotics grippers to build food-packaging machines for bakeries and manufacturers of frozen foods. The grippers are also at work at Just Born Inc., the Pennsylvania company that makes Peeps, the popular and delicate marshmallow candy.

RightHand Robotics is focused on serving online retailers. Its grippers use a combination of hard plastic fingers with an extendable suction tube in the “palm” of the hand that draws items into the grasp of the fingers. Cameras armed with 3-D imaging software can examine dozens of items jumbled together in a bin and order the gripper to pull out a specific tube or jar.

“We can hit 800, 900 units an hour, all day,” said Vince Martinelli, RightHand’s head of product and marketing.

Last week, RightHand and Locus Robotics, a Wilmington maker of mobile warehouse robots, announced a plan to integrate their systems. A Locus robot loaded with plastic tubs of merchandise will roll up to a RightHand sorting robot. The Locus machine will share data about the destination of each item, and the RightHand robot will sort the items into bins for shipping to customers.

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Even if these robotic grabbers aren’t capable of the most complex jobs, they’re getting smart enough — and fast enough — for many other packaging tasks.

And they’ll keep getting better. Perhaps in a few years, the only humans in an e-commerce warehouse will be there to oil the robots.


Hiawatha Bray can be reached at hiawatha.bray@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeTechLab.