Rows of stacked shipping containers wait to be unloaded.

Customers finding bare spots on grocery store shelves or waiting months instead of weeks for a furniture delivery are feeling the ripple effects of supply chain disruptions—with more shortages and delays anticipated as the holiday season approaches.

Much of the merchandise is out there, stalled in cargo ports loaded with shipping containers at unprecedented volumes. Labor shortages have slowed the pace of unloading containers and warehouses to a crawl, and ports on both U.S. coasts have required ships to idle at sea for days until space opens up in the yards. Those delays are straining the supply of cargo containers at a time when demand for goods is hardly slowing down—rather, U.S. imports are projected to rise through the end of the year.  

More recently, the Ports of Long Beach and Los Angeles have taken steps toward 24/7 operations, and major companies have committed to increasing work during night hours in efforts to move cargo off the docks. To combat the container shortage, logistics operators are increasing their efforts to unload merchandise near the port, freeing up the container to return to Asia. Demand for round-the-clock shifts continues to accelerate even as labor availability remains a challenge, so bottlenecks and strained resources will only be further exacerbated in the months ahead.

A RELIABLE SOLUTION IN UNCERTAIN TIMES

Boston Dynamics is beginning to deploy Stretch, an autonomous case-handling robot poised to change the way warehouses and ports operate. Expected to be available later in 2022, the robot can work up to 16 hours on a single battery charge, so companies can send Stretch to unload trucks or containers for full shifts both day and night.

Boston Dynamics partners are putting Stretch through its paces in early adopter testing. Brian Nachtigall, Director of Business Development for Warehouse Automation at Boston Dynamics, said those partners expressed enthusiasm over how efficiently Stretch cleared out trucks.

“So much of the last year and a half has been volatile in warehousing and logistics, but Stretch brings predictability to scheduling and throughput,” he said. “We anticipated unloading freight containers to be a good first application for Stretch — a stepping stone toward more complex activities throughout the warehouse. What’s happening now is an explosion in demand for precisely what we designed Stretch to do.”

DESIGNED FOR FLEXIBILITY AND EFFICIENCY

Built on a compact, wheeled base, Stretch can travel easily to each point of activity in a distribution center. The robot is self-reliant, untethered by power cables or air lines. Its vacuum-based gripper, at the end of a robotic arm with long reach, is designed to grasp a wide variety of box types required for a truly valuable solution in the logistics industry. With its small, pallet-sized footprint and embedded smarts, Stretch needs no pre-programming or overhaul of existing warehouse equipment to begin working, and is ready to deploy in just days.

Using Stretch for the physically challenging task of truck and container unloading also means a safer work environment. The Bureau of Labor Statistics reported 64,160 work-related injuries resulting in days away from the job among laborers and freight movers working by hand in 2019, the most recent year with available data. The bureau also reported 86,740 injuries related to overexertion in lifting or lowering at work that same year.

“We designed Stretch to handle grueling and dangerous tasks like unloading shipping containers,” said Kevin Blankespoor, Senior Vice President and General Manager of Warehouse Robotics. “Robots like Stretch have the vision and autonomy to tackle tasks that were previously too challenging to automate. Similar to our other robots, Stretch includes a healthy amount of Boston Dynamics’ DNA with advanced mobility, speed, strength, and intelligence.”

Those qualities feed into Stretch’s perception system, which allows it to recognize different package types and stacking configurations. The robot is also capable of working  autonomously through complex situations like recovering fallen boxes.

MEETING DEMAND

Unloading trucks and containers is just one facet of current supply chain troubles, the reasons for which are numerous and complex with far-reaching geography. These have ranged from factory closures to the skyrocketing cost of shipping containers, to a scarcity of computer chips and mechanical parts for manufacturers, with one disruption compounding another. 

“The effects of the past year have underscored just how efficient yet fragile the global supply chain is, as well as the impact it has on our everyday lives,” Nachtigall said. “Advanced automation solutions like Stretch will help strengthen our supply chain and enable a more adaptable network to move goods.”

Boston Dynamics plans to begin sales of Stretch in 2022. To learn more about how Stretch increases efficiency and safety for container and truck unloading, contact our sales team.

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