Warehouses and e-commerce order-fulfillment operations have been using mobile robots and soft grippers for some time now. Many often approach automation as a solution for a specific pain point rather than as an opportunity for wholistic improvements. More integrated systems and mobile manipulation are starting to change that, offering greater efficiency and productivity. One example is the mobile picking partnership that 6 River Systems Inc. and Soft Robotics Inc. announced today.
Waltham, Mass.-based 6 River Systems was founded in 2015 by former executives from Kiva Systems, which is now Amazon Robotics. The company’s Chuck autonomous mobile robot (AMR), named after the Charles River, uses machine learning and artificial intelligence to help human workers minimize walking, and it integrates with leading warehouse management systems (WMS). 6 Rivers’ Mobile Sort smart kiosks debuted at ProMat 2019, and its customers include DHL, Lockheed Martin, Office Depot, and XPO Logistics.
Editor’s note: This article has been updated with information from 6 River Systems and Soft Robotics.
Bedford, Mass.-based Soft Robotics uses innovative compliant robotic grippers to handle a wide variety of items. In combination with its control unit and proprietary software, Soft Robotics’ configurable soft grippers are designed to be used in industrial applications, including advanced manufacturing, e-commerce and retail, and food and beverage.
The company’s SuperPick is capable of more than 600 picks per hour, and it can pick from heterogeneous and homogenous bins. Soft Robotics recently added to its product portfolio the Mini Finger gripper for tight pick-and-place operations.
Last year, 6 River Systems raised $25 million in Series B funding, and Soft Robotics raised $20 million in an oversubscribed funding round.
Mobile picking demo and development
6 River Systems and Soft Robotics plan to demonstrate what they called “the first commercially available end-to-end mobile picking solution” at Booth 501 at CSCMP EDGE 2019, which will be from Sept. 15 to 18 in Anaheim, Calif. The companies have been in talks about possible collaborations since April.
The mobile picking exhibit will include 6 Rivers’ Chuck and Soft Robotics’ SuperPick, which the partners said provide ease of implementation and can handle a wide range of SKUs without requiring prior training, respectively.
“Customers have been asking us for solutions to pick high velocity or fast-moving items for quite some time,” said Josh Chaitin-Pollak, director of advanced projects at 6 River Systems. “The solution that we developed with Soft Robotics is what we came up with when we surveyed the market.”
“Both companies have had heard from customers that a combined solution would be of value,” said Lisa Donnelly, vice president of marketing at Soft Robotics. “The concept has been discussed within the industry, but to our knowledge, this is the first actual integrated solution of a mobile robot and a bin-picking solution.”
“Our two engineering teams worked seamlessly together,” Donnelly told The Robot Report. “Both companies use Slack as a communication tool, and we established a shared channel for this team. We installed the final version at the 6 River Systems warehouse in order to simulate an actual customer environment.”
“Integration was relatively straightforward from our perspective,” Chaitin-Pollak told The Robot Report. “We have not yet deployed this solution with any of our customers, but we are eager to see it in action in the coming months.”
Advantages of integration
Users can interface with Chuck, which “talks seamlessly” with SuperPick, explained Donnelly. While SuperPick isn’t mounted on Chuck, Soft Robotics is interested in the promise of mobile manipulation, she added.
“Unlike ad hoc technology combinations, this integrated solution may bring transformative productivity gains of up to 2-3x to existing warehouses and fulfillment center installations.” stated the companies.
“This solution will allow customers to fully automate the picking process for high-demand products, thereby enabling warehouse employees to focus on higher impact operations,” said Jerome Dubois, co-founder and co-CEO of 6 River Systems.
“Including the automated solution we developed with Soft Robotics, fulfillment floor managers will be able to use 6 River System’s software for all day-to-day operations, from induction to pack out,” Chaitin-Pollak added.
With high turnover and shortages of warehouse workers, accelerating consumer demand, and improving technologies, the advantages of more integrated systems are clear. ABI Research predicts that the number of supply chain facilities using robots will increase from just under 4,000 in 2018 to more than 50,000 by 2025, with over 4 million in robots in use. The latest AMRs, end effectors, and intelligent software are converging in mobile picking to meet e-commerce demand.
“I speak with customers nearly every day that are struggling with peak efficiency as a result of their inability to hire workers,” said Carl Vause, CEO of Soft Robotics. “The integration of mobile material transport systems and goods-to-robot order-fulfillment systems will help to address an increasingly common market need, and I am confident these customers will see throughput gains and payback faster than ever before.”
The end-to-end solution is available now from 6 River Systems and Soft Robotics, which will jointly support installations, said Donnelly.
The Robot Report has launched the Healthcare Robotics Engineering Forum, which will be on Dec. 9-10 in Santa Clara, Calif. The conference and expo focuses on improving the design, development and manufacture of next-generation healthcare robots. Learn more about the Healthcare Robotics Engineering Forum.
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