Unlike its elders – the Atlas and the Spot – Boston’s Dynamics’ Stretch is not all glammed up, but it sure is ready to go to work at DHL, H&M and Gap, among the other early customers. Stretch is an upgraded version of the Handle, and has secured a multi-year, USD 15 million investment with DHL recently. Boston Dynamics says it’s going to be bringing a ‘fleet’ of the robots to DHL logistics centers over the next three years. It may also prove to be success story for DHL in overcoming the shortage of blue-collar staff in the logistics industry.
Let’s first take a look at the logistics robot’s introductory video:
The robot is up for sale for anyone who wants to make Stretch a part of the family, but the deliveries should be expected no sooner than 2023-24, citing the labor crunch prevailing in the West.
Labor shortages and supply chain snags continue to create challenges in keeping the flow of goods moving. Stretch makes logistics operations more efficient and predictable, and it improves safety by taking on one of the most physically demanding jobs in the warehouse. Many of our early adopter customers have already committed to deploying the robot at scale, so we are excited Stretch will soon be put to work more broadly, helping retailers and logistics companies handle the continued surging demand for goods.”Robert Playter, CEO, Boston Dynamics
Stretch comes at a time when the world is witnessing an e-commerce boom and companies around the globe are trying to upgrade their operations in order to compete with Amazon’s huge automation and robotics fleet. And Boston Dynamics is turning no stone un-turned to seize the opportunity by capturing the ‘hottest category in robotics’.
The robot will primarily work on off-loading trucks & order building (stacking goods into a single pallet), and will have other automation functions rolled out gradually to ease the package handling processes at warehouses, and in logistics industry at large. Stretch will be a major victory for Boston Dynamics’ commercial aspirations, if it succeeds at the repetitive, labor intensive and strenuous job of package handling that includes lot of error points.
Stretch has a mobile base the size of a pallet, which replaces the set of 2 wheels in Handle. This not only gives Stretch a lot more stability than Handle, but also reduces its energy consumption. The robot is able to pivot 360 degree on its base, in contrast to the Handle, which required a lot of space in order to move with its two wheels. Handle would grab a box, scoot backward, turn 90 degrees, and roll away to stack the box somewhere else. This made it the package handling task a little more cumbersome and time consuming with Handle, considering that trucks and some warehouse spaces are pretty confined areas. But Stretch can do it with much more ease, thanks to its design changes. There are 4 wheels – one at each corner of the base – which move in any direction, allowing for a broad range of movement and relatively tight turns for a robot of its size. The ‘perception mast’ on the side of the arm, effectively serves as the unit’s eyes for autonomous movement and picking.
Stretch is a ready to deploy robot with no pre-programming required and lasts a full 8 hour shift in a single charge. Its purpose-built arm has strength, speed, and reach required for warehouse applications, and operates using vacuum gripper to grab boxes/pallets. Boston Dynamics is also working on a next generation of the gripper that still uses suction but will be able to grasp more irregular surfaces apart from the current flat ones. The arm can lift 50 pounds, yet is a quarter the weight of a typical industrial robot arm.
Stretch also shares its DNA with the Spot, Boston Dynamics’ most loved robot that looks like a dog and opens doors for you. The wrist joints in Stretch are the same as in Spot in terms of sensors, gearboxes and electric motors. Even the software used to control the joints is same in both Spot and Stretch. Similarly, it uses the same camera and navigation software that is used in Spot.
You can think of it like a sophisticated power tool to help warehouse operators get their job done.”Kevin Blankespoor, Lead Engineer (Warehouse Robotics), Boston Dynamics
Boston Dynamics says that Stretch will, in its operations, be complementing human workforce at warehouses, rather than replacing them.