Pickle launches his robot arm for unloading trucks

by Ana Lopez

Somewhere along the way, ProMat turned into a robot show. Of course it’s no surprise. Logistics and automation go hand in hand these days. In the decade since Amazon absorbed Kiva, same-day and next-day delivery has become an industry standard. Retailers that can’t match those once-impossible speeds are doomed to fall behind – and robots are needed for that.

Loading and unloading trucks is one aspect of it all that has been woefully underexposed. Most of the solutions you’ll see at the show this week focus on moving goods from point A to point B along a warehouse floor. It’s an important area, of course, but anyone coming into the category these days would do well to check out other elements of the space.

After about half a day at the show, three companies jump out at me. The first is Agility, which offers the most human solution, in the form of its bipedal Digit robot. Second, there’s Boston Dynamics, which has focused decades of impressive robot research on the problem of creating Stretch. Third is Pickle, a newcomer to space.

The MIT-born startup publicly showcased its container unloading robot at ProMat this morning for the first time. Pickle has been firmly focused on the specific problem from the start, actually starting his life trying to tackle the even more complex task of container loading.

“We thought this was the hardest problem and it wasn’t solved yet,” CEO Andrew Meyer tells businessupdates.org. “We wanted to see how feasible this is before spending millions of dollars building a company around the idea.”

Loading is still on the roadmap for Pickle, but for now it’s all about rolling out the unpacking solution. It’s a big enough problem to take up the company’s time, as it’s one of the most unpleasant roles for human workers on the warehouse floor. In addition to how physically taxing lifting and moving heavy boxes at high speeds is on the body, storage containers remain exposed to the elements while docked, often causing them to become extremely hot or cold inside. During the beta, the Pickle system has worked in containers as hot as 115 degrees (in California). Temperatures below freezing, on the other hand, remain a difficult challenge.

The system is built around a modified Kuka arm, with an off-the-shelf head modified to create what amounts to a large foam-tipped vacuum head, using pneumatic suction to pick up objects up to 65 pounds. The on-board vision system and AI determine which box to choose next (there are no indicators on the boxes themselves) and mount to the side or top depending on space constraints. It is capable of running up to 600 picks per hour and dropping them onto a nearby conveyor belt.

Pickle raised $26 million in 2021. Meyer tells businessupdates.org that the startup is currently looking to raise another $15 million to secure its runway after the collapse of SVB.

“We weren’t with SVB, but everyone is connected,” he tells businessupdates.org. “Our risk tolerance drops a little bit when the macro has these weird things going on. We talked about it and decided we would get another tranche in the bank. The interesting thing about this next installment is that Pickle 1 is now being released. Pickle 2 and 3 come in consecutive years. Pickle 3 will absolutely float the entire company by a big margin, in terms of the size of the market it’s designed to support and the gross margins on the hardware and service margins. If we can get Pickle 3 out the door, we’ll be a cash positive company.

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