3 Takeaways After Debuting Stretch at MODEX 2022
After launching our warehouse robot Stretch, we heard from warehouse and materials handling professionals with a few consistent themes.
Boston Dynamics commercially launched Stretch, our autonomous robot for the warehouse, at MODEX 2022 in Atlanta in late March. At demos in the booth each day, crowds watched as the robots demonstrated one of the most common and difficult to solve challenges in logistics today: truck unloading.
After speaking with hundreds of conference attendees (estimated at more than 37,000 this year by conference organizer MHI), as well as the many prospective customers we have met with over the past several months, the Boston Dynamics team has developed a few consistent takeaways from the feedback we received during and after the event.
1. THE DEMAND FOR AUTOMATED TRAILER AND CONTAINER UNLOADING IS REAL
We’ve consistently heard resounding feedback that Stretch is exactly what companies need. With supply chain woes and labor hiring and retention challenges, companies are looking to supplement their operations with automation. Introducing a technology like Stretch into their warehouse can help keep the flow of goods moving and bring predictability to daily workflows. Manual unloading is dangerous work prone to causing injury, and automating unloading can allow companies to move those workers into other strategic roles, including managing the robots.
The level of interest in Stretch at MODEX was staggering, with some visitors wishing to place an order on the spot. Stretch, however, is sold out for 2022, due to high demand from customers including DHL Supply Chain, Performance Team – A Maersk Company, Gap, and H&M. Boston Dynamics is continuing to take orders for the robot for 2023 and 2024.
2. THERE IS UNMET INTEREST IN AUTOMATING OTHER MATERIAL HANDLING APPLICATIONS
MODEX visitors were excited by the prospect of automating their unloading processes, but many of them wanted more – our team also heard requests for palletizing, depalletizing, order building, and loading trailers and containers. Attendees also asked about automated unloading for objects like tires, or for frozen food cases, which tend to be icy and slippery. Although Boston Dynamics is currently offering only case unloading as an application in order to focus on our early customers, we're excited to continue developing to meet this demand for other automation applications.
3. THE TECHNOLOGY IS IMPRESSIVE
The production version of Stretch was on public display for the first time at MODEX 2022, and engineers who visited repeatedly called the design “beautiful.” The Robot Report echoed that sentiment and remarked on how much more “polished” this finished design for customers looked compared to the prototype seen in 2021. The production version has several improvements over the prototype, including a lighter, custom-built arm so Stretch can move faster, a new gripper, and an optimized vacuum.
Historically, trailer unloading has been a difficult task to automate, but Boston Dynamics has continued to advance Stretch to make it an ideal fit for this application. Stretch draws on multiple technologies to pick boxes, and builds on the work of other Boston Dynamics robots like Atlas and Handle. Our engineering team designed Stretch’s base with a compact footprint to allow it to work within the tight confines of a warehouse. They also gave Stretch long battery life to tackle at least one full shift, and mobility to travel in any direction and traverse ramps. The robot’s vision system detects both the surrounding walls of a trailer as well as the boxes, and machine learning allows the vision system to further improve over time. The arm has long reach and the powerful gripper can pick boxes up to 50 pounds – Stretch can grasp boxes from the top or front, and autonomously retrieve boxes that may fall to the ground during the unloading process.
Boston Dynamics was thrilled that Stretch was named a finalist for the MHI Innovation Award for 2022, especially considering there were more than 120 submissions across three award categories. From the machine learning-trained vision system to the custom-built gripper, visitors expressed admiration for how the robot works and moves.
WHAT’S NEXT FOR STRETCH
Boston Dynamics will continue to deploy Stretch with our early adopter customers, including DHL and Performance Team - A Maersk Company, throughout this year. In the meantime, our engineers are continuing to develop other applications for Stretch in the warehouse, and our sales team is continuing to identify customers with strong use cases for the robot’s current and near-term capabilities. As we expand that landscape and continue to grow our partner network, we will eventually expand Stretch’s availability beyond North America.