Warehouses, distribution centers, and loading docks are chaotic places. Unloading messy trailers and getting billions of e-commerce orders delivered on time involves backbreaking, repetitive work. These tasks are ideal for automation, but solving this challenge has been a holy grail of logistics, according to Pickle Robot Co. The Somerville, Mass.-based startup said it has done so in only 18 months and with limited funding by focusing on human ingenuity and problem solving.
“At Pickle, we think of our robots less like Terminators and more like sled dogs. No one expects a team of dogs to run the Iditarod on their own; they'd run into trouble in just minutes,” said Ariana Eisenstein, co-founder and chief technology officer at Pickle. “The same goes for AI robots. After spending months inside warehouses observing operations, the engineers at Pickle realized that if you try to completely replace people with robots, the operation would quickly grind to a halt.”
With that insight, the company claimed, its systems can inexpensively retrofit existing operations and increase the processing rate of an entire warehouse. Pickle this week demonstrated how its Dill robot can unload a real-world trailer at more than 1,600 picks per hour. This is significantly faster than a person, and double the speed of any competitors, it said. The MIT spinout recently raised $5.75 million in funding led by Hyperplane.
Dill robots plus people pick packages
To maintain that speed, people must supervise Dill's operation and lend an occasional helping hand, stepping in every so often to pick up any dropped packages and handle irregular items. This saves employees' backs and reduces the considerable costs associated with labor, mis-sorts, damaged items, and trucks leaving late, said Pickle.
However, what customers are really looking for is a way to increase capacity and revenue in their existing facilities, according to the company. When Pickle removes a bottleneck at the loading dock, the throughput of the whole building goes up, it said.
How has Dill's team of 15 people solved this problem? “We designed people into the system from the get-go and focused on a specific problem: package handling in the loading dock,” explained Andrew Meyer, CEO of Dill. “We got out of the lab and put robots to work in real warehouses. We resisted the fool's errand of trying to create a system that could work entirely unsupervised or solve every robotics problem out there.”
Pickle robots are already in production, sorting packages in e-commerce fulfillment warehouses. The Trailer Unload configuration is available to reserve in June for shipping beginning in 2022.
“We've made the robot smart enough to roll up and do the job, eliminating the extensive customization and process overhauling that typically goes along with automation,” Meyer said. “That means we can lower the cost barrier to adoption by as much as 90% and serve customers who might assume robotics is beyond their reach.”