Pickle launches robotic truck unloading arm
Somewhere along the way, ProMat turned into a robotics show. It’s no surprise, of course. Logistics and automation go hand in hand these days. In the decade since Amazon’s takeover of Kiva, same-day and next-day delivery has become an industry standard. Retailers who can’t match these once-impossible speeds are bound to fall behind — and that requires bots.
Truck loading/unloading is one aspect of this that has been terribly outsourced. 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. It’s an important area, of course, but anyone who falls into the category these days would be well served by looking at other elements of space.
After about half a day at the show, three companies jump out at me. The first is Agility, which provides the most humane solution, in the form of its bipedal robot Digit. Second, Boston Dynamics, which focused decades of impressive robotics research on the problem to create Stretch. The third is Pickle, a newcomer to the space.
The MIT-born startup publicly showcased its container unloading robot for the first time this morning at ProMat. Pickle has been determinedly focused on the specific problem since its inception, beginning its life trying to tackle the even more complex task of container loading.
“We thought that was the toughest problem, and it hadn’t been solved yet,” CEO Andrew Meyer told TechCrunch. “We wanted to see how feasible this was before spending millions of dollars building a business around this idea.”
Loading is still on Pickle’s roadmap, but for now it’s fully focused on rolling out its unboxing solution. It’s a big enough problem to occupy the company’s time, as it’s one of the most unpleasant roles for human workers in the warehouse. In addition to the physical difficulty of lifting and moving heavy boxes at high speed across the body, storage containers remain exposed to the elements while moored, often making them extremely hot or cold inside. During its beta, the Pickle system operated in containers as hot as 115 degrees (in California). Sub-freezing temperatures, on the other hand, remain a difficult challenge.
The system is built around a modified Kuka arm, with an out-of-the-box head that has been customized to create what amounts to a large foam-tipped vacuum head, using pneumatic suction to pick up objects up to ‘at 65 lbs. The on-board vision system and AI determine which box to choose next (there are no indicators on the boxes themselves) and attach to the side or top, depending on space constraints. It is capable of taking up to 600 samples per hour, depositing them on a conveyor belt nearby.
Pickle raised $26 million in 2021. Meyer tells TechCrunch the startup is currently looking to raise an additional $15 million to protect its track in the wake of SVB’s collapse.
“We weren’t with SVB, but everyone is connected,” he told TechCrunch. “Our risk tolerance goes down a bit when the macro has this weird shit. We talked about it and decided to get another slice in the bank. The cool thing about this next slice is that Pickle 1 is coming out now. Pickle 2 and 3 are coming in consecutive years Pickle 3 is absolutely going to float the entire business by a significant margin, in terms of the size of the market it was designed to support and gross margins on hardware and service margins If we can get Pickle 3 out, we’re a cash positive business.
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