Warehouses run entirely by robots may not be waiting on the horizon, but that—and much more—remains a goal for Somerville, MA-based RightHand Robotics.
“A typical item delivered to a customer is touched four to 11 times before it ships,” says the company’s co-founder Leif Jentoft. “We are looking to automate every one of those picks.”
While artificially intelligent robots like RightHand’s won’t be writing pink slips for human warehouse workers anytime soon, it’s Jentoft’s expectation that the “lights-out” warehouse—meaning no humans on site and hence no lights needed—will someday come.
“In the future, the overall system will go in that direction,” he adds.
RightHand, whose mechanical gripper and computer vision system is currently filling orders in warehouses in the U.S., Japan, and Europe, says it has just raised a $23 million Series B funding round led by Menlo Ventures and joined by GV, the venture capital arm of Alphabet’s Google. In March 2017, RightHand raised an $8 million Series A funding round.
The funding will fuel the company’s work “rolling out” and “scaling up,” says Kiva Systems co-founder and former CEO Mick Mountz in a prepared statement; Mountz is joining RightHand’s board of directors as part of the round. Kiva, which developed a shelf-moving robot for warehouse fulfillment, was bought in 2012 by Amazon (NASDAQ: AMZN) for $775 million.
Mountz was an early sounding board for the RightHand team, Jentoft says.
“His advice on how you have something become real, not just a technologically interesting idea, was really important,” Jentoft says. “You need to have systems in the real world.”
Real-world learning became a central element of RightHand’s robot. When the system is presented with an item it’s never seen before—perhaps made of new materials or in a novel shape it hasn’t picked up before—it tries to grasp or suction the new item until it finds the best way to pick it up. Then, that hard-won knowledge about the new material or shape is shipped off to the fleet of RightHand’s robots, Jentoft explains.
E-commerce’s constant growth has pressured the middlemen logistics systems that store, pack, and ship the millions of online orders. Jentoft says warehouses are struggling to maintain a consistent workforce to manually fill the orders. But while the task of finding an item in a bin in a warehouse is relatively straightforward for humans, it can be tough for robots that have trouble responding to unknown of novel situations, like new product packaging.
RightHand, founded in 2014, has about 40 employees and has plans to add employees for product deployment, sales, and engineering. The company says it has raised $34.2 million to date.
Piece-picking, while the company’s current focus, could be just the beginning for RightHand. Jentoft says upstream robotic handling applications in factories and downstream uses in home assistance could eventually be ripe for RightHand’s technology.