The Boston area is a hub for warehouse robotics companies. Living and working in this area provides me with the opportunity to schedule site visits at many of these innovative firms. Most recently, I visited the Berkshire Grey (BG) corporate office for an in-depth discussion about the company’s business, followed by a tour of the Berkshire Grey Innovation Center. The BG innovation center is an operating warehouse where the development team creates, tests, and enhances its solutions.
Berkshire Grey describes itself as an Intelligent Enterprise Robotics company. In my words, BG provides integrated warehouse automation solutions based on robotics, AI, and other modern technologies. The solutions are designed to support single and multi-item processing typical in e-commerce fulfillment and store replenishment operations. Perhaps most notable is the degree to which the company creates its products “from the ground up.” Product and solution distinctions are visible simply by viewing the form and function of the hardware, let alone witnessing the capabilities enabled by its extensive software intelligence.
Systems in Action
Berkshire Grey’s solutions include the higher-level orchestration engines all the way down to the individual technologies that perform discrete tasks. During a tour, the physical technologies are what can be seen directly with one’s eyes, while the software capabilities are inferred from the capabilities on display. BG demonstrated several of its products during the innovation center tour. And these technologies were incorporated into broader solutions. It was clear from the demonstration that extensive planning went into the solutions’ development, all the way down to the innovative plastic carton caps that stabilize carton flaps and maximize cube utilization.
Robotic Shuttle Product Sortation
The Robotic Shuttle Product Sortation solution identifies, routes, and quickly processes large volumes of items. Inventory totes arrive at an operator workstation. The operator places items to one of the two induction points (two induction points allow the workstation to maximize presentations). A belt conveyor then transfers the items over a short distance to the linear shuttle. Next, the linear shuttle rapidly transports and deposits items into outbound containers situated in line below the shuttle’s path. The length of the shuttle and number of outbound containers is configured for optimal throughput, based on the parameters of the client’s operation. Once containers include all desired items, they are pushed onto a take-away line for subsequent processing. The linear sorter struck me as a highly productive technology in its ability to rapidly and accurately transport and deposit items into a large number of outbound locations.
Robotic Shuttle Put Wall
I expect Berkshire Grey’s Robotic Shuttle Put Wall to experience rapid market adoption – and this is why. Traditional put-to-light systems are a low-risk, quick-win introduction to warehouse automation. These systems address a widespread requirement to combine separate items for packaging and shipping to consumers. Berkshire Grey’s solution takes that process to the next level. It leverages the company’s linear sorter to rapidly transport items to the appropriate slots on the put-wall for subsequent processing by warehouse staff. The product press release states that the system provides sort locations for up to 240 orders to be processed at the same time in a single robotic put wall. Rapid access to such a large number of sort locations is made possible by the high-speed performance of the sorter that repetitively transports items from the workstation to the numerous sort locations.
Robotic picking is a significant technology within Berkshire Grey’s solution portfolio. I had the opportunity to watch the company’s robotic picking technology in-action at the innovation center. I also learned about how the advanced capabilities provide performance characteristics valued by customers.
Berkshire Grey’s robotic picking predominantly uses a set of interchangeable end effectors (suction cups to you and me) to grip items. However, it is the software intelligence, including AI, that is the “secret sauce” behind the high picking performance the solution offers. Examples of high performance include the ability to meet high threshold picking requirements, such as picking shrink wrapped items without wrinkling the plastic wrapper; the dexterity to place multiple items in a shipping box with proper positioning and order (heavier items on the bottom, lighter ones on top) to assure content integrity; and placement of items into disposable plastic grocery bags (low tolerance for weight, pressure) for a customer using it for back of store micro fulfillment. This current customer use of the robotic picking for back-of-store order preparation is one of the most cutting-edge examples of technology utilization for micro fulfillment to my knowledge.
Berkshire Grey offers novel technologies that address typical e-commerce and other direct-to-consumer fulfillment processes. Furthermore, BG provides integrated solutions, rather than point solutions typical of many warehouse robotics companies. Berkshire Grey’s market outreach should address both the novel technologies and approaches they utilize, but at the same time align these technologies with the traditional solution paradigms in the minds of its potential customers.
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