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ProMat brings together some of the world’s leading manufacturing and supply chain equipment providers. This year’s show had 1,000-plus exhibitors, and as a first-time attendee, I had plenty of robotic systems to learn about during my three days at the show.
Here’s a recap, in no particular order, of some of the best robots at ProMat 2023.
Agility Robotics’ Digit
The Agility Robotics booth was packed for most of the show, and for good reason. It’s not every day you get the opportunity to see a bipedal robot in action. According to Agility, Digit’s demo was based on a real customer use case, and it was running during all four days of the show. Digit was the winner of ProMat’s Best New Innovation Award.
Digit is the product of over two decades of research and development. While the company may have started its journey by looking at various use cases for a bipedal robot, anything from running into burning buildings to last-mile delivery, it honed its focus on automating a process that needs to be addressed that Digit can safely and reliably perform.
Digit currently only works in enclosed spaces away from humans, and it will even shut down when human workers get too close. The robot can help reduce worker injuries from lifting or lacerations that can happen when human workers handle broken totes.
Agility is gearing up to start manufacturing Digit at scale, adding it could work at a rate of $10/hour for tasks like the one it demoed at ProMat.
Boston Dynamics’ Stretch
Boston Dynamics showed off its Stretch case handling robot at the show. Stretch showed off its trailer unloading abilities flawlessly, although there wasn’t much variability in the boxes it was working with.
Stretch is already deployed at customer sites and has more customers lined up. Boston Dynamics seems to have even more ambitious plans for the robot in the future. At its booth, it ran a video where it showed animated Stretch robots zipping around a warehouse, building pallets on top of AMRs which bring those pallets to other Stretch robots that would load the boxes into a truck.
The company is being held back by safety regulations right now, which keep Stretch caged off and away from humans, limiting it to just its current unloading application.
Pickle Robot demoed a similar container unloading system. It is built around a modified Kuka arm and suction grippers to pick up objects up to 65 pounds and place them onto a conveyor. The onboard vision system determines which box to pick next. Again, there wasn’t much variety in the shape and size of the boxes. Here’s a side-by-side comparison of the Pickle and Boston Dynamics solutions:
RightHand Robotics’s RightPick
RightHand Robotics wasn’t the only company showing off bin-picking robots, but its demo was one of the most consistent and flexible. The entire time I was at its booth, and every time I visited it throughout the show, RightPick didn’t miss a single pick.
RightHand also showed a new autonomous suction cup swapper. Integrated in the front of a demo workcell, the robot arm can choose from four different suction cups. Due to all the data RightHand has collected over the years, it knows which suction cup offers the best chance at successfully picking an item. When the system has low confidence in a suction cup’s ability to grasp upcoming items, it will autonomously swap out for the suction cup that offers the most confidence. RightPick’s grippers use a combination of suction and three mechanical fingers to give the system extra stability in all of its picks.
Autopicker was announced in February 2023, and it was exciting to see it at work in person for the first time. Brightpick’s Autopicker moves around warehouses, retrieving totes from shelving and robotically picking items from those totes to consolidate orders directly in aisles. This process removes the need for a human picker to take items out of totes, a common part of many similar robotic systems.
At ProMat, Autopicker was picking snacks for attendees. At the show, it was only pulling totes from one side of the robot. But the version that will work in customer warehouses can pull from both sides, allowing it to roll between shelving and switch between pulling totes from behind or in front of the robot.
Truck unloading was a popular demo at ProMat, and Mujin took a more unique approach to the process. According to the company, the robot can unload up to 1,000 cases per hour.
TruckBot’s design aims to specifically address the challenges that come specifically with unloading floor-loaded trailers and containers. The robot can attach to standard telescoping conveyors, which are found at many loading docks, and can reach up to 52 feet into a trailer truck or shipping container.
At ProMat, TruckBot was working with Mujin’s palletizing robot to sort cases onto pallets for storage.
Tuskrobots’ autonomous pallet handler
Autonomous forklifts were another common appearance at the show, but Tuskrobots had the most unique approach to moving pallets. Instead of the typical automated forklift design, Tuskrobots’ autonomous pallet handler slides two prongs underneath a pallet and uses the tongs to lift the pallet. The rest of the AMR then slides underneath the pallet.
Once the pallet is on top of the AMR, it can drive to its next location, where it lifts it again, slides out from underneath the pallet, lowers the pallet, and then slides its prongs back into the AMR. This unique method of picking up pallets means the robot is only slightly larger than its payload, allowing it to operate in high-density storage areas.
Verve Motion’s SafeLift Suit
Verve Motion spun out of Harvard in 2020 and offers an exosuit that aims to take 40% of the strain off of workers during lifting. While the exosuit can improve productivity by helping workers keep a consistent pace during their entire shift, the company’s aim is to make workplaces safer for workers and to reduce on-the-job injuries.
When we were at the booth, Home Depot was demoing the system, repeatedly lifting a packed tote and case of water. The retailer said they have employees who repeatedly lift loads up to 75 lbs from the floor onto a pallet daily.
I had the opportunity to try out the exosuit myself. It took just minutes to put on and was easy to adjust. When picking up and putting down a heavy tote, it gives a tug across the back that reduces the amount of strain your back has to do. The suit at ProMat had three settings: neutral setting, lifting only and lifting and putting down. Users can switch between the modes by pressing a button near their shoulder. These settings can be customized according to a customer’s need.
Slip Robotics AMR
Slip Robotics showcased its automated trailer loading/unloading system (ATLS). The omnidirectional robot is designed to carry up to 8 full pallets and a total of 6 tons. It autonomously drives into a tractor-trailer for transport to the next destination. Three ATLS robots can fit inside a typical tractor-trailer.
Fork truck operators do not need to enter the trailer and instead load and unload pallets onto the Slip ATLS in the open loading dock. The Slip ATLS travels with the load to the destination, where it drives off the trailer, onto the dock for unloading and loading. A loaded set of ATLS robots would then drive onto the trailer for immediate departure. Slip said its robots use a sealed lead acid battery that isn’t subject to federal hazmat restrictions for ground transport.
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