Autonomous Unloading Robots: Two Companies Making a Big Impact
Some experts refer to effective tractor-trailer unloading as a “holy grail” challenge for the world of robotics.
Writing for The Robot Report, Mike Oitzman describes the challenge like this:
“We often talk about ‘holy grail’ applications in robotics – those applications which are deemed difficult to solve, and thus require additional invention, investment and time to mature. Tractor-trailer unloading is one of these holy grail applications. Many companies have attempted to solve this problem prior and failed. The problem arises from the awkwardness of organizing the successive unpacking of trailers at the destination.”
In the article, Oitzman highlights two companies making an impact in this space: Fox Robotics and Boston Dynamics—although their offerings are quite different.
Fox Robotics—which recently closed a $20M funding round—offers an autonomous forklift solution for pallet unloading, and Boston Dynamics offers its Stretch™ robot, which provides autonomous unloading of trailers packed with boxes only, sans pallets.
In that light, we decided to take a closer look at the autonomous robotic solutions each of these companies are providing to tackle the “holy grail” challenge of tractor-trailer unloading.
The Boston Dynamics Stretch robot officially emerged onto the scene when the company announced it was available for commercial purchase on March 28th of this year.
According to the release, demand was so high that pre-orders from early adopters meant that at the time of the announcement, it was already sold out for the remainder of 2022. However, reservations for 2023 and 2024 deliveries were being accepted.
Boston Dynamics said Stretch was first introduced in Spring 2021 and had been in pilot testing with a “select group of customers,” who were responsible for the onslaught of pre-orders.
“All units scheduled for 2022 delivery have already sold out thanks to strong demand from those early customers, which include DHL Supply Chain, Gap, H&M and Performance Team – A Maersk Company,” the statement said.
Described as a “versatile, mobile robot that unloads floor-loaded trailers and containers for safer and more efficient warehouse operations,” Boston Dynamics said the robot “works with a wide range of package types and sizes, from standard brown to highly graphical boxes, and can handle cases up to 50 pounds. With advanced mobility and a footprint the size of a pallet, Stretch is built to maneuver in and out of trucks and tight spaces in a warehouse. The robot is an easily scalable, autonomous solution that can be installed and ready to work within existing warehouse infrastructure in just a few days.”
“Labor shortages and supply chain snags continue to create challenges in keeping the flow of goods moving,” said Robert Playter, CEO of Boston Dynamics in the statement. “Stretch makes logistics operations more efficient and predictable, and it improves safety by taking on one of the most physically demanding jobs in the warehouse. Many of our early adopter customers have already committed to deploying the robot at scale, so we are excited Stretch will soon be put to work more broadly, helping retailers and logistics companies handle the continued surging demand for goods.”
The announcement also provided insight into how Stretch works: “Stretch’s technology builds upon Boston Dynamics’ decades of advancements in autonomous robots. The robot is equipped with a powerful, custom vacuum gripper and an advanced vision system that detects boxes and the container surroundings, enabling Stretch to autonomously recover any packages that shift or fall during unloading. Stretch does not require any pre-programming of SKU numbers or information on box sizes; the robot makes all unloading decisions in real time, without the need for explicit directions or supervision. The robot is capable of working more than a full shift on a single charge, or up to 16 hours with a high capacity battery option.”
This video from Boston Dynamics demonstrates Stretch in action.
In addition to the major deals with DHL Supply Chain and Performance Team – A Maersk Company cited in the March announcement, Boston Dynamics announced a new agreement with NFI at the end of August.
“NFI, a leading supply chain solutions provider, today announced it has signed a $10 million agreement to deploy Boston Dynamics’ newest robot, Stretch, across its U.S. warehousing operations,” the press release said. “The mobile robot will begin unloading trucks and containers as a pilot program at NFI’s Savannah, GA facility in 2023, with plans to outfit additional warehouse locations across North America over the next few years.”
“At a time when companies need to evolve to meet consumer expectations, NFI has stepped in as the innovative logistics partner, contributing to our customers’ competitive edge,” said Sid Brown, CEO of NFI. “Our innovation portfolio emphasizes productivity and safety in NFI’s operations. With Stretch, we will enhance the movement of freight through our facilities while providing a safer environment for our employees.”
This post from Boston Dynamics provides more detail about Stretch: “Break Through Supply Chain Blocks with Automated Container Unloading.”
Initially piloted in October of 2019, the automated forklift offered by Fox Robotics is touted as a first in the industry, according to the company’s website: “Fox Robotics is the first to offer an automated forklift that can unload pallets from trailers to receiving docks. Fox takes a standard lift truck and adds sensors and software to enable self-driving with precise navigation and robust pallet picking and movement.”
Over the past few years, the company has been gaining some significant momentum:
In October of 2020 Fox Robotics raised a $9M Series A round.
In January of 2021, Fox Robotics was selected by market intelligence firm Tracxn as a “top emerging startup in the Professional Startup Robots space.”
In October of 2022, Fox Robotics announced the “close of a $20M oversubscribed funding round led by BMW i Ventures.”
An October 27th press release provided additional details about the offering that has investors so interested.
“Fox Robotics is the world’s first intelligent forklift that autonomously services the warehouse receiving dock,” the release said. “Fox’s autonomous forklifts are running around the clock across dozens of customer sites today, and they have been proven out in some of the world’s most demanding environments like DHL Supply Chain.”
“As the COVID-19 pandemic made evident, supply chain resiliency is paramount,” said Peter Anderson-Sprecher, Co-Founder & CEO of Fox Robotics in the statement. “We have the ability to deploy our solutions to customers and have them up and running in less than one hour, which has been key to our success as it lets us work closely with our customer-partners and rapidly learn in a live production environment.”
“Supply chain efficiency and resiliency are top of mind for many companies today. Fox Robotics’ autonomous forklifts allow customers to handle loads quicker and safer while increasing overall workplace productivity,” added Kasper Sage, Managing Partner at BMW i Ventures. “We’re excited for Fox Robotics’ next phase of growth, bringing intelligent automation solutions to the global supply chain.”
“DHL Supply Chain, the global and North American contract logistics leader within Deutsche Post DHL Group, was Fox’s first customer and is rapidly deploying their technology across their network of warehouses,” according to the release.
“At DHL Supply Chain a key focus has been our Accelerated Digitization Strategy which seeks to nurture and deploy innovative technology solutions at scale. For this program to be successful it is important that we establish strategic partnerships with companies like Fox where we can collaborate to develop solutions that address the unique challenges of the logistics industry,” said Sally Miller, CIO, DHL Supply Chain North America in the statement. “Over the past three years we’ve worked closely with Fox testing and sharing operational knowledge which has resulted in a product that delivers true value for both our customers and warehouse associates.”
“Fox has solved the hardest forklift challenge to date – unloading trailers without modifying the warehouse environment – and has a clear path to automating all pallet movement,” the release noted. “Each forklift can be delivered and installed in under one hour, compared to the weeks or months that typical automated guided vehicles take for integration.”
“Fox is executing today on one of the key visions David [Fuller] and I had always wanted to deliver with KUKA—the automation of the material handling function. At KUKA we successfully optimized the production side with robots, and now Fox is well positioned to do the same thing with pallet movement,” added Till Reuter, former CEO of KUKA, and incoming Board Director at Fox. “It’s almost hard to believe how effective they are even when you see them up and running right in front of you.”
The release also noted that “Although autonomous vehicles are not yet ready for mass deployment on public streets, the same technology is being commercially used in closed warehouse environments today. Fox retrofits a standard forklift with sensors and software to enable autonomous material handling operations with precise navigation and robust pallet picking and movement. Deep learning systems use on-board cameras and LiDAR sensors to detect pallets, boxes and other obstacles in real time and enable the forklift to pick pallets out of trailers it is seeing for the first time.”
Zebra Technologies, “a global leader in automation solutions for enterprises,” is also investing in Fox, according to the announcement.
“Zebra Technologies has been an active investor and solution provider to help businesses globally digitize and automate their supply chains and augment front-line workers,” said Tony Palcheck, Managing Director of Zebra Ventures, Zebra Technologies. “Fox has proven its ability to increase resiliency, safety, and drive measurable return on investment, and we look forward to working together with Fox on this next stage of growth.”
This video from Fox Robotics demonstrates their product in action.