This article was written by Frank Croghan, a principal product manager for Stretch. He previously worked at 6 River Systems and Universal Robots.

Stretch has made a real impact in warehouses, powering through unloading of trailers and containers. That has naturally led to interest in what other tasks the robot can take on in the warehouse. Our team has been busy at work developing other applications for this multipurpose robot.

It’s no wonder mobile case handling has drawn so much interest – warehouse work is physically demanding, and automating the labor of lifting and lowering heavy loads brings plenty of benefits. Stretch can work up to two shifts, and unloads cases at the same steady rate without fatigue. Its full mobility means it can go from point to point of activity, wherever the robot is needed. And, of course, workers are less strained. So where else can Stretch lend a powerful helping hand?

Multi-Application Innovations

The need is there: Interact Analysis data show that there are over 125,000 distribution center warehouses globally, representing almost 70% of the total number of warehouses. Distribution centers typically do a combination of full-pallet and mixed-case picking to fulfill their downstream customers’ needs. Picking and palletizing these cases is a massive workload that robots can help tackle. In response, we have been developing Stretch to perform mobile palletizing and order picking.

To do case picking, the robot would roam aisles in a warehouse, going to various locations and grabbing cases to build an order. Stretch would travel to a storage location, pick as many cases as called for in the order, and place them on a pallet atop a cart affixed to the robot. Then Stretch navigates to other locations and does the same, until the robot has completed building that order. Its advanced perception and manipulation allow the robot to “see” and grasp cases, and to place them with precision. Stretch performs the task autonomously and travels on its own, fully mobile and untethered to power or air lines. All of this is coordinated with the warehouse operator’s warehouse management system (WMS), allowing Stretch to know what items are needed and where to find them, and to update the WMS on the progress of the order.

In another future application, we see Stretch grasping cases from a conveyor belt to build a pallet. This is a common material handling task done both for fulfilling customer orders as well as to facilitate intra-logistic moves of cases within the warehouse. As with case unloading, automating these tasks leaves the heavy lifting and lowering to Stretch. Unlike a conventional robotic palletizer that is fixed in place and needs to have cases fed into it, Stretch is mobile and can go where it is needed, servicing several conveyors for enhanced productivity.

Unparalleled Dexterity

In a market full of 6-axis robotic arms, Stretch’s 7-axis arm stands out and enables key capabilities. That additional axis broadens the range of angles and orientations for the arm to work in, and helps optimize arm movements, resulting in faster and smoother case-handling motions. Even when Stretch is faced with low clearance under racking, the custom-built arm allows Stretch to deftly maneuver and pick boxes.

A Look at the Future Warehouse

Since Stretch first deployed to unload trailers and containers last year, the robot has been a powerful tool to keep goods moving in warehouses quickly and efficiently. The eventual integration of mobile palletizing will compound those benefits.

Boston Dynamics sees the warehouse of the future as an automated one, where we can bring the intelligence and agility that our robots are known for. Stay tuned as our continued development brings us there.