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 absorbed Kiva, same- and next-day delivery have become an industry standard. Retailers who can’t match those once impossible speeds are destined to fall behind — and doing so requires robots.
Truck loading/unloading is an aspect of all of this that has gone woefully under-addressed. Most of the solutions you’ll see at the show this week are focused on transporting goods from Point A to Point B along a warehouse floor. It’s an important area, of course, but anyone entering the category these days would be well served examining other elements of the space.
After about half a day at the show, three companies jump out at me. First is Agility, which provides the most humanlike solution, in the form of its bipedal Digit robot. Second is Boston Dynamics, which has focused decades of impressive robotics research on the problem to create Stretch. Third is Pickle, a newcomer to the space.
The MIT-birthed startup publicly showcased its container unloading robot for the first time this morning at ProMat. Pickle has been single-mindedly focused on the specific problem since its inception, actually beginning life attempting to tackle the even more complex task of loading containers.
“We thought that was the hardest problem, and it hadn’t been solved yet,” CEO Andrew Meyer tells TechCrunch. “We wanted to get some eyeballs on how feasible this is before we spent millions of dollars building a business around the idea.”
Loading is still on the roadmap for Pickle, but for now it’s focused entirely on rolling out its unpacking solution. It’s a large enough problem to occupy the firm’s time, as it is 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 making them extremely hot or cold on the inside. During its beta, the Pickle system has been operating in containers as hot as 115-degrees (in California). Sub-freezing temperatures, on the other hand, remains a difficult challenge.
The system is built around a modified Kuka arm, with an off-the shelf 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 65 pounds. The on-board vision system and AI determine which box to pick next (there are no indicators on the boxes themselves) and attach to the side or the top, depending on space constraints. It’s able to perform up to 600 picks per hour, dropping them onto a nearby conveyor belt.
Pickle raised $26 million, back in 2021. Meyer tells TechCrunch that the startup is currently looking to raise another $15 million to safeguard its runway in the wake of SVB’s collapse.
“We weren’t with SVB, but everyone’s connected,” he tells TechCrunch. “Our risk tolerance goes down a bit when the macro has this weird shit going on. We talked about it and decided we would get another tranche in the bank. The interesting thing about this next tranche is we’ve got Pickle 1 releasing now. Pickle 2 and 3 are coming in consecutive years. Pickle 3 will absolutely float the entire business with a large margin, in terms of the size of the market it’s been designed to support and the gross margins on the hardware and service margins. If we can get Pickle 3 out the door, we’re a cash-positive business.”