Soft robotic gripper innovator Soft Robotics Inc. today announced that it has raised $23 million in an oversubscribed Series B funding round, which included participation from FANUC Corp., the world’s largest industrial robot manufacturer.
Calibrate Ventures and Material Impact co-led the round, which included existing investors Honeywell, Hyperplane, Scale, Tekfen Ventures, and Yamaha.
Bedford, Mass.-based Soft Robotics previously announced a strategic partnership with FANUC to integrate Soft Robotics’ mGrip adaptable gripper system with any FANUC robot through the deployment of a new controller. The combined product was introduced at IREX in Tokyo in December 2019.
Round to power Soft Robotics’ manipulation solutions
Soft Robotics said its proprietary grasping technology, machine vision, and software systems address the most challenging applications, ranging from primary and secondary food packaging to unstructured bin picking. The company serves industries such as food and beverage, consumer goods and cosmetics manufacturing, e-commerce supply chains, and more.
“This new funding will allow us to power the next phase of our growth strategy and continue to provide solutions to our customers’ greatest challenges,” stated Carl Vause, CEO of Soft Robotics. “Variability is the kryptonite of the robotics industry. 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.”
Soft Robotics enables automation of reverse logistics
In addition, Soft Robotics said it is working with e-commerce, logistics, and retail customers to address the high cost of online returns logistics. With its technology’s unique ability to handle the most unstructured and delicate items, the company can now help automate reverse logistics, one of the costliest links in the online supply chain because of high variation and high-value items such as apparel.
Post-holiday product returns are shining a light on the challenge of reverse logistics. According to a recent report, 15% to 30% of all online orders are returned. In addition, processing a return requires 20% more space and two times the labor as sending out a package.
UPS alone recently processed nearly 2 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,” said Remy Glaisner, research director, worldwide 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,” he added. “In that context, the role of nimble gripper solutions adaptable to both the inbound and outbound workflows become of strategic importance. The challenges of customer product — consumer, but not only — returns are front and center throughout the year, and demand high variability for high value items such as in the apparel industry.”
Robots augment scarce workers
With its patented compliant grippers and unique ability to handle the most unstructured and delicate items, Soft Robotics is bringing automation to industries in dire need of such solutions because of a global shortage of qualified workers. For the past two years, the number of job openings has exceeded the number of unemployed persons, according to the U.S. Department of Labor.
“Hiring qualified workers is seen as the single biggest challenge, with 65% of respondents rating it as extremely or very challenging, and 91% rating it as at least somewhat challenging,” said a recent Material Handling Institute report.
According to a 2018 report from Deloitte and the Manufacturing Institute, a skills gap may leave an estimated 2.4 million positions unfilled between 2018 and 2028, with a potential economic impact of $2.5 trillion.
In addition, 5.1 out of every 100 warehouse and storage workers experience injuries or work-related illnesses each year, reported the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.
“If we don’t automate ourselves out of this problem, the implications for the economy will be profound,” said Jeff Burnstein, president of the Association for Advancing Automation.
“We are thrilled to continue to support Soft Robotics in its quest to transform workforce automation and to be playing a part in its future,” said Kevin Dunlap, co-founder of Calibrate Ventures. “Through its precise, reliable and easy-to-use technology, Soft Robotics is at the vanguard of the advanced automation space and is well positioned to become the standard for gripper solutions globally.”