Stretch™ robots have been hard at work since the company started deploying with customers in January. Built to tackle the physically demanding job of unloading trailers and shipping containers, these workhorses have kept the flow of goods moving steadily into warehouses. They are put to work for a single or multi-shift operation, day and night, taking on what has been called the most difficult job in the warehouse.

Our goal is to automate dull work that is potentially hazardous for people. The heavy loads and repetitive lifting and turning motions involved in warehouse jobs leave workers prone to injury, and the extreme temperatures in containers during the summer and winter are grueling for staffers. Labor shortages continue to be a major concern, along with worker retention, in supply chain workplaces. Automating physically demanding work can allow managers to reallocate, shifting workers toward jobs requiring greater cognitive ability and manual dexterity.

Stretch excels at its first task of truck unloading, but it was designed to be a multipurpose robot and intended to take on much more. Stretch can easily get cases into the warehouse, but we also want to help our customers get cases through the warehouse. Boston Dynamics is known for its legged robots, which possess advanced manipulation that allows them to open doors and agility that propels them into somersaults. Stretch has inherited that DNA, so to speak, of advanced autonomy enabled by perception, mobility, and manipulation. So what will Stretch do next?

Stretch will eventually take its case handling ability from inside the container to the rest of the warehouse, where the robot will take on more tasks. In addition to unloading, other applications on our roadmap for Stretch include: case picking, palletizing and depalletizing, and loading containers. We also imagine a warehouse where Stretch is working in concert with other pieces of automation, and has interoperability with other autonomous mobile robots (AMRs) and autonomous forklifts (AFLs).

Robot Upskilling

According to data from Interact Analysis, 8.39 billion pallets were picked globally in 2022. That’s a staggering volume that robots can help address. Case picking is ideal for an automation solution like Stretch. The robot has a compact base capable of omnidirectional movement and runs on a lithium-ion battery, allowing it to travel untethered, roaming among warehouse aisles to pick from under racking. We plan to have Stretch pull cases from shelves and place them on a pallet atop an AMR or a wheeled cart affixed to the robot.

We also see Stretch robots palletizing and depalletizing. In one scenario, as Stretch robots unload trailer contents onto conveyors, additional Stretch units could be stationed at the other end, pulling boxes off the belt and placing them on a pallet. The robot’s powerful gripper can handle cases up to 50 pounds, and the arm’s long reach—maxing out at 10.5 feet in height—will allow it to stack boxes high.

We also plan for Stretch to eventually load cases. The robot would pull boxes off a conveyor and place them into a trailer. Interact Analysis estimates the number of packages shipped in 2022 at 126.9 billion, a tremendous figure when it comes to manual labor that could be alleviated with the help of robots. The benefits would be the same as that of our unloading application: keeping the flow of goods moving in and out, and saving manual unloaders some of the literal heavy lifting whenever possible.

Stretch also has the added benefit of being an environmentally friendly solution, since it unloads only floor-loaded containers, eliminating the need for wooden pallets and plastic wrapping. Without pallets, the containers fit far more freight and provide the highest density storage, saving fuel and reducing CO2 emissions.

Unlocking the Warehouse of the Future

Stretch is a game changer for the warehouse, and its impact will only grow as it takes on additional tasks. With Stretch, we anticipate streamlined processes, improved safety and efficiency, and digital visibility over operations in the warehouse. In the lab and at the warehouse, we’re continuously enhancing Stretch and moving the robot closer to its next big application.

At Boston Dynamics, we want to change your idea of what robots can do: we strive to deliver robots that enrich people’s lives. With Stretch, we are on a journey to making our vision a reality.