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Behold, TruckBot

One undeniable trend from this year’s Modex conference: suddenly everyone is into truck unloading. The past couple of years have gone from a few select companies to seemingly everyone in and around warehouse robotics looking to tackle the problem. Most solutions are some variation on a basic theme: a robotic arm attached to a mobile base that can be moved in and out of crates.

And then there’s TruckBot. When I first saw the system, which made its show debut last year, it took me a minute to understand what I was looking at. As we peered down from the vantage point of the Mujin booth’s mezzanine meeting rooms, my eye was drawn immediately to the big industrial robot arm in the foreground -- this, after all, is what most of these systems look like.

Instead, TruckBot sat atop a conveyer belt. In fact, TruckBot is actually part conveyer belt. The system can move up and down vertically (up to 10 feet), side to side and has a 52-foot reach that lets it get into containers without leaving its spot on the belt. Interestingly, the company refers to the system using the language of a robotic arm, including the wrist articulation and the “gripper” at the end, which is really a series of pneumatic suction cups that attach to the side of the box.

Image Credits: Brian Heater

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Truck unloading is a particularly physically taxing aspect of warehouse work, which is a big part of the reason Pickle Robotics, Boston Dynamics and others have been so focused on the task. Not only is it repetitive, back-breaking labor, the containers are built to stick outside of warehouses, meaning they can get dangerously hot or cold, season dependent.

The system looks unwieldy -- certainly it lacks the nimbleness of Boston Dynamics’ Stretch. But it’s a clever solution that incorporates the picking directly into the conveyor system. The system is capable of handling a range of sizes, weighing up to 50 pounds a piece. Mujin says it can process up to 1,000 boxes an hour. Watching it in action brought to mind a hulking, metal herbivorous dinosaur.

Image Credits: Brian Heater

“TruckBot is a game-changer for warehouses looking to streamline their operations and reduce costs,” the company notes.” The dock door is the largest bottleneck in our supply chain and unloading trailers is back-breaking work. TruckBot will improve safety and effectiveness for warehouses across the globe while unlocking the possibility for true fully autonomous operations.”

The robot is the latest addition to the Mujin ecosystem, which also includes robots for palletizing, depalletizing and piece picking. TruckBot’s next trick will be figuring out how to load trucks, though that may require some tweaks to the “gripper” system.