Look, Truckbot

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One undeniable trend from this year's Modex conference: Suddenly everyone is into truck unloading. Over the past few years, a select few companies and everyone in and around warehouse robotics have been trying to tackle this problem. Most solutions are some variation on the basic theme: a robotic arm attached to a mobile base that can be moved in and out of the crate.

And then there's Truckbot. When I first saw the system, which debuted last year, it took me a minute to understand what I was looking at. As we looked down from the vantage point of the Mujin booth's mezzanine meeting room, my eyes immediately went to the large industrial robot arm in the foreground – after all, that's what most of these systems look like.

Instead, Truckbot sat atop a conveyor belt. In fact, TruckBot is actually a parts conveyor belt. The system can move vertically (up to 10 feet), side to side, up and down and has a 52-foot reach that allows it to get into containers without giving up its location on the belt. Interestingly, the company refers to this system in the language of a robotic arm, consisting of a wrist joint and a “gripper” at the end, which is actually a series of pneumatic suction cups that attach to the side of the box.

Image Credit: brian heater

Truck unloading is a particularly physically demanding aspect of warehouse work, which is a large part of why Pickle Robotics, Boston Dynamics and others focus so much on this task. Not only is this repetitive, back-breaking labor, the containers are made to be affixed to the outside of warehouses, meaning they can get dangerously hot or cold, depending on the weather.

The system looks cumbersome – it certainly lacks the agility of the Boston Dynamics Stretch. But it's a clever solution that incorporates picking directly into the conveyor system. The system is capable of handling a variety of sizes, weighing up to 50 pounds per piece. Mujin says it can process up to 1,000 boxes an hour. Seeing it in action reminded me of a giant, metal herbivorous dinosaur.

Image Credit: brian heater

The company notes, “Truckbot is a game-changer for warehouses who want to streamline their operations and reduce costs.” The dock door is the biggest bottleneck in our supply chain and unloading trailers is a lot of work. TruckBot will improve safety and effectiveness for warehouses around the world while opening up the possibility of fully autonomous operations.

The robot is the latest addition to the Mujin ecosystem, which also includes robots for palletizing, depalletizing and piece picking. The next step for TruckBot will be to figure out how to load trucks, though this may require some changes to the “gripper” system.