Big round for robotics company picking up where Kiva left off

RightHand Robotics takes on the hardest technical challenge of the ecommerce era: Teaching a machine to pick stuff up.
Written by Greg Nichols, Contributing Writer

RightHand Robotics, a Boston-based robotics company tackling a particularly vexing technical challenge for ecommerce fulfillment centers, has secured $23 million in Series B funding. The Round was led by Menlo Ventures with participation from GV (formerly Google Ventures).

RightHand's rapid growth is a testament to the mounting challenges faced by ecommerce fulfillment centers, which are confronting higher throughput and a tight labor market. While much of the fulfillment process has been automated, logistics providers still rely on armies of human workers to perform mundane piece-picking tasks, such as moving items from a conveyer belt to a bin.

Though seemingly straightforward, the technical challenge of automating piece-picking for ecommerce is immense. Traditionally, robots have been programmed and tooled to grasp items within specific narrow tolerances. But fulfillment centers can handle millions of SKUs of varying shapes, sizes, textures, and densities. A robotic piece-picking system that can pick up a bag of marbles, a tube of lipstick, and a boxed toaster has been the holy grail.

RightHand Robotics was founded in 2014 and grew out of a DARPA challenge-winning team from the Harvard Biorobotics Lab. The company's innovation rests on a convergence of technologies, including 3D vision, a versatile end effector (or robot hand), and smart machine learning and AI that identifies new objects and comes up with a grasping strategy in real time. It's a technology-heavy approach that's taken years of R&D to make workable.

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Other piece-picking robotics companies have been chasing RightHand Robotics. On the other hand, an innovative company called Soft Robotics is approaching the piece-picking challenge by focusing on materials science over 3D vision and machine learning. Soft Robotics' grippers are compliant and form around a wide variety of objects, in many cases eliminating the need for precise gripping strategies. 

It remains to be seen which approach will come to dominate piece-picking going forward.

In addition to the funding news, RightHand Robotics is adding Mick Mountz, an industry heavyweight and former CEO of Kiva, to its board. Kiva is the robotics company that finally cracked the logistics game before being acquired by Amazon in a massive deal in 2012. Kiva's technology was locked up by Amazon after the acquisition, and the industry has largely been playing catchup ever since.

Given that history, the addition of Mountz to RightHand's board is highly symbolic. 

"RightHand is picking up where we left off," said Mountz. "Customers saw products coming directly to operators for picking and packing and would ask: 'Why don't you also automate this step with a robotic arm and gripper?' But that was a difficult problem that we knew would require years of research and technical breakthroughs."

RightHand clearly believes its piece-picking solution is the missing component that could lead to a truly lights-out fulfillment center.

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