Robotics stretches beyond the container with Boston Dynamics

Boston Dynamics Stretch mobile robot demonstrating mobile case picking in a warehouse aisle.

Boston Dynamics’ Stretch has made a real impact in warehouses, powering through the unloading of trailers and containers. That has naturally led to interest in what other tasks the robot can take on. Our team has been busy 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 it unloads cases at the same steady rate without fatigue.

Stretch’s full mobility means it can go from point to point of activity, wherever it is needed. And, of course, workers are less strained. So where else can Boston Dynamics‘ robot lend a powerful helping hand?

Innovations enables robots to do multiple tasks

The need is there. Data from Interact Analysis shows that there are more than 125,000 distribution centers 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 it has completed building that order. The robot’s advanced perception and manipulation allow the robot to “see” and grasp cases, and to place them with precision.

The robot 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 operator’s warehouse management system (WMS). This allows Stretch to know what items are needed and where to find them, as well as 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 intralogistic 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.

Stretch excels at dexterity

In a market full of six-axis robotic arms, Stretch’s seven-axis arm stands out and enables key capabilities. That additional axis broadens the range of angles and orientations for the arm to work in.

The additional axis also 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.

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Boston Dynamics looks to the future warehouse

Since Stretch was 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.

Editor’s note: Frank Croghan, a principal product manager for Stretch at Boston Dynamics, originally wrote this article for the Boston Dynamics blog.

More about Stretch

Automated Warehouse editors Mike Oitzman and Eugene Demaitre spoke with Croghan to learn the latest about Stretch use cases beyond containers.

How long have you been deploying Stretch?

Croghan: We’ve been deploying Stretch for over a year and a half now. A regular warehouse associate can be trained to work with Stretch in a couple of days.

They simply point Stretch into the trailer, push a button, and it goes. It’ll keep going until the trailer is empty or until it reaches a situation like a broken box; that requires some intervention.

Do you anticipate a need for different sizes of Stretch?

Croghan: We designed Stretch to fit in the warehouse and go to where the work is needed. It’s the size of a pallet, but honestly, there’s so much unrealized opportunity for Stretch in its current form before we consider a different form factor.

What additional features are in the works for Stretch to fully function in this new application?

Croghan: We’ve been working on picking under the racking and placing the pallets, but we need additional enhancements for the more complex palletizing patterns.

One additional feature is also the ability to ingest orders from the WMS [software], and we’re working on that.

Do you envision a future in which Stretch robots could unload trucks in the morning and then be redeployed to picking tasks later in the day?

Croghan: Yes, absolutely. The same robot can do different things throughout the day on different shifts.

This is in the roadmap and helps to meet the needs of the warehouse both daily, as well as seasonally.


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Written by

Frank Croghan

Frank Croghan is the principal product manager for Stretch at Boston Dynamics. He previously worked at 6 River Systems and Universal Robots.