The Future of Warehouse Automation

As bottlenecks and stresses in the supply chain have built to a critical state in the past few years, interest in warehouse automation has reached new heights. A pandemic-induced surge in demand for goods, coupled with a labor shortage, has revealed fault lines in today’s supply chain infrastructure and strained it in unprecedented ways. Companies, looking to adapt in a changed landscape, are accelerating the pace at which they accept and adopt new technologies.

Motivations to automate for sheer productivity gains have existed for some time, while others have grown out of a more recent need for flexibility and the ability to adapt and grow fast. Warehouse work has always been demanding for people, involving lifting and lowering heavy loads, repetitive motions that leave the body prone to injury, and extreme temperatures in both the summer and winter.

More recently, growing trends like near-sourcing and shorter product life cycles have called for rethinking warehouse processes. Near-sourcing, a practice designed to keep customers happy with the fast delivery times they have come to expect from retailers, locates some fulfillment operations closer to their final destinations with customers. And products today must move more quickly thanks to shorter life cycles, with consumer tastes and in turn product designs turning over rapidly.

Still, many warehouse tasks are manual and companies remain early in the automation adoption curve, due in large part to limitations of existing technology. One report estimates that 15 percent of warehouses are being mechanized, and only 5 percent are using sophisticated automation equipment. The challenge for us here at Boston Dynamics is to develop solutions to address these challenges, while enabling businesses to remain productive, profitable, competitive, and relevant.

Automation is Fixed and Fragmented

There are many capable pieces of automation on the market, yet they tend to be components rather than a complete solution. For example, autonomous mobile robots (AMRs) transport goods from point A to point B but lack manipulation capability, necessitating some other piece of automation or a person to complete a job. Robotic arms need skilled programmers. Vision systems for bin picking address some of the more dynamic challenges in the work cell, but are often specialized to address a particular application. Safety components such as fences, sensors for collision avoidance, emergency stops, and lidar guards are essential for keeping people safe around working robots. Creating an end-to-end solution requires putting together these disparate tools with complex and costly system integration. Often, these solutions also occupy large and valuable space on the warehouse floor.

Such solutions also lack flexibility, eventually becoming fixed monuments to the original application they were deployed for. Building one raises difficult questions. Which application should be chosen? Who will integrate it? How will it be supported over time? There can also be long lead times for services and design, and for implementation of the fixed automation.

An Integrated Solution for One of the Hardest Tasks in the Warehouse

Trailer and container unloading is one area ideal for automation. U.S. ports are seeing record numbers for containerized imports, with volumes up 26.9% in June over the same month pre-Covid. Companies are having a hard time finding enough people to do the labor-intensive job of unloading, which often involves body strain and injury. At the same time, having automation technology in place may help those companies with worker recruitment and retention. A survey this year found 74% of on-floor workers would consider a pay cut at another company if the new position included work-related technology, and that 46% of workers believe robots will reduce physical stress.

Boston Dynamics’ Stretch™ automates the task of trailer and container unloading, leaving the robot to literally do the heavy lifting. This integrated system encompasses mobility, vision, and gripping, with a mobile base that can travel in any direction, a perception mast housing an advanced vision system and sensors, and a custom lightweight arm outfitted with a powerful vacuum gripper. When set to start, Stretch will autonomously unload all the boxes of a trailer onto a conveyor belt, which typically transits the boxes to a scanning tunnel or sortation systems.

Stretch can be put to work in just days—installation is brief and works within existing warehouse infrastructure. No technical background is needed to operate the robot, and training takes just two days. Deploying additional robots in the future would go even faster, making Stretch an easy to scale solution.

Boston Dynamics is most often associated with our robots Spot and Atlas, known for dance routines and parkour moves that push the boundaries of robotics. We bring that groundbreaking technology to products like Stretch, and apply it in practical ways that increase the utility of our robots to solve human challenges. With Stretch you can see what is possible today, and as you watch Atlas’ advanced maneuvers you can begin to imagine what’s possible for the future of automation in warehouses and beyond.