Tech Briefs Magazine - August 2021 - MD-14

Giving Robots Better Moves
For most people, the task of identifying
an object, picking it up, and placing it
somewhere else is trivial. For robots, it
requires the latest in machine intelligence
and robotic manipulation.
RightHand Robotics - a Somerville,
MA-based spinoff from Massachusetts
Institute of Technology (MIT) - has
incorporated both machine intelligence
and advances in robotic manipulation
into its robotic piece-picking systems,
which combine unique gripper designs
with artificial intelligence and machine
vision to help companies sort products
and get orders out the door.
" If you buy something at the store, you
push the cart down the aisle and pick it
yourself. When you order online, there
is an equivalent operation inside a fulfillment
center, " said RightHand Robotics
co-founder Lael Odhner. " The retailer
typically needs to pick up single items,
run them through a scanner, and put
them into a sorter or conveyor belt to
complete the order. It sounds easy until
you imagine tens of thousands of orders
a day and more than 100,000 unique
products stored in a facility the size of 10
or 20 football fields, with the delivery
expectation clock ticking. "
RightHand Robotics is helping companies
respond to two trends that have
transformed retail operations: the explosion
of e-commerce, which only accelerated
during the COVID-19 pandemic,
and a shift to just-in-time inventory fulfillment,
in which retailers restock items
based on what's been purchased to im -
prove efficiency.
The robot fleet also collects data that
help RightHand improve its system over
time and enable it to learn new skills
such as more gentle or precise placement.
Process and performance data
feed into the company's fleet management
software, which helps customers
understand how their inventory moves
through the warehouse and identify bottlenecks
or quality problems.
" The idea is that rather than looking
at just the performance of a single operation,
e-commerce firms can modify or
overhaul the operational flow throughout
the warehouse, " Odhner said.
Pushing the Limit
At the core of the company's solution
is the idea of using machine vision and
14
Cov
ToC
RightHand Robotics combines machine vision with an
intelligent gripper design to offer robots that are more
adaptable. (Credit: MIT)
" We have very good insight as to what
may be a source of future problems and
we can feed that back to customers. "
Odhner noted that warehouse fulfillment
could grow to be a much larger
industry if throughput were improved.
" As consumers increasingly value the op -
tion of shopping online, more and more
items need to get into a growing number
of 'virtual' carts. The availability of people
near order fulfillment centers tends
to be a limiting factor for e-commerce
growth. All of that is really indicative of
a massive economic inefficiency and
that's essentially what we're trying to
address, " Odhner said. " We are taking
the least engaging tasks in the warehouse
- things like sorter induction
where you're just picking, scanning, and
putting something on a belt all day long
- and we're working to automate those
tasks to the point where you can take
your people and direct them to things
that are going to be more directly felt by
the customer. "
The systems give people insights into their inventory,
how they're storing their inventory, and how they're
structuring tasks both upstream and downstream of
any picking. (Credit: MIT)
intelligent grippers to make piece-picking
robots more adaptable. The combination
also limits the amount of training
needed to run the robots, equipping
each machine with what the company
equates to hand-eye coordination.
RightHand Robotics also utilizes an
end-of-arm tool that combines suction
with novel underactuated fingers, which
Odhner said gives the robots more flexibility
than robots relying solely on suction
cups or simple pinching grippers.
" Sometimes, it actually helps you to have
passive degrees of freedom in your hand
- passive motions that it can make and
can't actively control, " Odhner said of
the robots. " Very often, those simplify
the control task. They take problems
from being heavily over-constrained and
make them tractable to run through a
motion planning algorithm. "
The data the robots collect are also
used to improve reliability over time and
shed light on warehouse operations.
" We can give people insights into their
inventory, how they're storing their
inventory, and how they're structuring
tasks both upstream and downstream of
any picking we're doing, " Odhner said.
Odhner also said more automated fulfillment
centers offer improved measures
to protect worker health and safety
such as ergonomic stations where goods
are brought to workers for specialized
tasks and increased social distancing.
Rather than reducing the number of
people employed in a warehouse, he
said, " Ultimately, what you want is a system
with people working in roles like
quality control, overseeing the robots. "
Robots Made Easy
This year, the company is introducing
the third version of its picking robot,
which ships with standardized integration
and safety features in an attempt to
make deploying piece-picking robots
easier for warehouse operators.
" People may not necessarily grasp the
enormity of our progress in productizing
this autonomous system in terms of
ease of integration, configuration, safety,
and reliability but it is huge because it
means that our robot systems can be
drop-shipped pretty much worldwide
and get up and running with minimal
customization, " Odhner said. " There is
no reason why this can't just come in a
box or on a pallet and be set up by anyone.
That's our big vision. "
For more information, visit http://
info.hotims.com/79416-285.
Motion Design, August 2021
http://info.hotims.com/79416-285 http://www.abpi.net/ntbpdfclicks/l.php?202108MDNAV

Tech Briefs Magazine - August 2021

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