Soft robotic hands may soon have a firm grip on the industry

Variability in packaging is the Achilles heel of industrial automation. These soft hands can help.

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Soft Robotics, a company that develops enterprise level soft robotic grippers for a variety of materials handling and pick and place applications, is on a roll. After securing a high level strategic partnership in 2019, the company has announced an oversubscribed Series B worth $23M.

Back in December, Soft Robotics rolled out an innovative adaptable gripper system designed especially to work with FANUC robots via a new controller. The combined product debuted at IREX in Tokyo in December. Unlike robotic end effectors made of rigid materials that only flex via built-in joints, soft end effectors conform to the objects they pick up, allowing for a wider variety of applications with a single unit.

"Variability is the kryptonite of the robotics industry," says Carl Vause, CEO of Soft Robotics. "By offering a system that is able to grasp and manipulate items that vary in size, shape, and weight, we are able to solve the problem of high variability in both products and processes."

When I ran into Vause at a robotics conference a couple years back, he impressed me with a story of his end effectors picking up Peeps, the soft candy birds, directly off the line without deforming them, something unthinkable with rigid end effectors.

Read also: Robot builds an Ikea chair. Everyone goes nuts.

As I wrote in 2018 following Soft Robotics' Series A, building a better gripper is now akin to the age-old quest to build a better mousetrap. As use cases for robots proliferate and the demand for automation explodes thanks to fast fulfillment and grocery delivery, one of the big challenges is confronting variability in packaging. Soft Robotics' proprietary grasping technology, machine vision, and software solutions address these issues for large and meaningful industries such as food and beverage, consumer goods and cosmetics manufacturing, e-commerce supply chains, and more.

Additional use cases include handling item returns. According to Soft Robotics, UPS alone recently processed nearly two million returns on a single day. According to some sources, holiday returns could add up to as much as $90 to $95 billion worth of merchandise this year. 

"Creating or accelerating a direct-to-customer channel is a strong cross-sector trend that has moved beyond markets such as food packaging and consumer goods manufacturing and more," says Remy Glaisner, Research Director WW Robotics at IDC. "At the order management level, it also means establishing highly dynamic 'reverse supply chains.' However, the general labor scarcity for use-cases related to order management is a critical roadblock. In that context, the role of nimble gripper solutions adaptable to both the inbound and outbound workflows become of strategic importance."

The gripper problem is being solved by companies like Soft Robotics and labs specializing in soft systems at research institutions like Carnegie Mellon University and UC Berkeley

The venture arms of robotics giants ABB and Yamaha Motor Co., invested in Soft Robotics' last round. Calibrate Ventures and Material Impact participated in the latest round, along with additional existing investors Honeywell, Hyperplane, Scale, Tekfen Ventures, and Yamaha.