This article was written by Grant Aylward, product manager – warehouse robotics, and Lauren Miller, director of autonomy & behavior for Stretch.

We reached a big milestone with Stretch at the end of August—since shipping to customers in January 2023, Stretch robots have moved more than 1 million customer boxes. We designed Stretch to automate the strenuous work of unloading trailers and containers for greater safety and efficiency, and the demand has been tremendous. Stretch takes on the labor of repetitive lifting and lowering of heavy loads, and keeps the flow of goods moving so warehouses can meet demand. Stretch robots are tackling that work every day with customers like DHL and Maersk.

Stretch remains a very early-stage product. Our first prototype Stretch robot powered on in 2019, and we kicked off our first long-term installation at a customer site just this year. So, how did we get to 1 million boxes with such a young robot? As we developed Stretch over the past few years, we worked closely with potential customers to understand warehouse environments and operations and to refine our product to meet their need. As we shifted from Boston Dynamics’ long legacy of R&D work to commercializing robots, we also put certain structures and practices in place to get the robot out of the lab and into the real world. This involved three major efforts: increasing performance, robustness, and reliability of our robot; focusing on safety; and building amazing partner relationships.

A Focus on Performance and Robustness for Warehouse Environments

First, we needed robust, product-ready hardware. Using learnings from customer trials, we gained a greater appreciation for environmental elements like dust, humidity, and broken trailer flooring, as well as a more realistic expectation of case quality we would encounter in warehouse operations. We made many updates to the Stretch platform as a result. Stretch was also redesigned for mass manufacturing, ensuring we can produce the quantities of high-performance, reliable robots that our customers need at a price that makes sense.

Boston Dynamics is world-renowned for our ability to redefine the boundaries of what’s possible to do in hardware and software. Since our initial deployment, we have drawn on our experience at customer sites and our in-house expertise in perception, control, and planning to push the performance of our robot. We’ve expanded the types of cases we can move and increased the speed and reliability at which we move them. Boston Dynamics also recognizes the need for thorough testing, validation, and support as part of launching a product. Leveraging what we’ve learned from productizing our Spot robot, we’ve built teams and processes dedicated to reliability testing, quality assurance, field service, technical documentation, and technical support on Stretch. 

Last, we need to practice like we play. We’ve created a large warehouse space where we test the hardware and software against the warehouse rigors of the real world. We’ve installed multiple types and brands of conveyors, we test with an assortment of case sizes and weights, and we put Stretch through a continuously changing set of case condition challenges, like damp cardboard, crushed cases, and weak tape. Testing every day in our own dusty and humid warehouse ensures our software and hardware deliver as expected for our customers.

Development of a Safe, Minimal-Infrastructure Solution

We’ve built lightweight safety systems that enable Stretch to work at high speeds without drastically altering the inbound area. Our safety system is mounted onto a telescopic conveyor or offered as a collapsible fencing unit for flexible accordion conveyors that can travel from dock door to dock door. Both options are flexible enough to be deployed at different customer sites quickly, without major changes to existing infrastructure or operation.

Our safety systems allow Stretch to unload trailers while ensuring the safety of manual unloaders working at adjacent dock doors. The systems are designed to augment the experience of operators in the warehouse; this means providing fast and intuitive interfaces for operator assistance in addition to keeping them safe.

Leveraging Great Partner Relationships

Our customers have been close collaborators with us on this journey, allowing us to test a new piece of technology on site and giving us invaluable feedback. We’ve learned a great deal about how Stretch contributes to and fits into their operations.

Stretch has proven itself time and again to our customers, delivering the reliability and performance they need. At some sites, Stretch robots are taking on 100% of inbound floor-loaded containers. These robots are in use every day, and customers are expanding the number of Stretches deployed across their networks. We could not have gotten to this point without the partnership of our early adopters.

Going Beyond the Millionth Case Pick

What’s next for Stretch? We’re excited to have surpassed the 1 million case milestone, and to see the growing impact of Stretch for our customers. But we’re not done yet. We’re always at work refining the robot’s performance, and designing new features to optimize the way Stretch works for our customers and operators. At Boston Dynamics we develop robots to tackle industry’s toughest challenges, and with Stretch we’re just getting started.