March 28, 2017      

RightHand Robotics Inc., which has developed robotic systems for e-commerce order fulfillment, has raised $8 million in Series A funding. The company today also released its RightPick offering, which combines hardware and software for “piece picking,” or pick and place of individual items.

Playground Global led the funding round, which also included Dream Incubator, Matrix Partners, Seven Seas Partners, and angel investors.

“RightHand Robotics has created a transformative technology combining machine learning and smart hardware to address a tremendous opportunity in the logistics industry,” said Andy Rubin, founder and CEO of Playground Global. “For the first time, affordable industrial robots can grasp things they have never seen before.”

The company plans to use that capital to expand staffing, product development, and marketing. Somerville, Mass.-based RightHand Robotics already employs researchers who are alumni of the Harvard Biorobotics Lab, MIT, and the Yale GRAB Lab.

“We started out with three Ph.D.s in robotics, said Leif Jentoft, co-founder of RightHand Robotics and a Harvard graduate. “We’ve been in stealth mode for about three years now.”

“We have 20 employees, give or take a few interns,” he told Robotics Business Review. “We’re interested in growing out in the sales and account manager space. We have the technology in place and are interested in scaling out.”

Business Takeaways:

  • RightHand Robotics has moved from three Ph.D.s operating in stealth mode to a robotics provider with Series A funding that’s ready to serve the supply chain industry.
  • The company’s RightPick combines a sensor-enabled gripper with machine-learning capability for pick and place operations. It is designed to work with a number of industrial robot arms.
  • Although many robotics companies are pursuing e-commerce order fulfillment, RightHand believes that the market is big enough and that its solution is robust enough for competition to not be a pressing concern.

Watching the warehouse market

Global shipments of warehousing and logistics robotics will increase from 40,000 units worth $1.9 billion last year to 620,000 units worth $22.4 billion by 2021, according to research firm Tractica LLC.

Pick and place robot from RightHand Robotics

A RightPick work cell from RightHand Robotics is ready for the supply chain.

“The market is experiencing strong growth, with many prominent companies showing greater confidence in new robotics technologies that can yield a return on investment in less time than it took a few years ago,” said Tractica.

“I see a lot of companies with cool ideas, but they need to understand what’s needed and what’s possible,” Jentoft said. “Two of our three co-founders shifted fulltime to studying what companies need.”

“We looked at logistics, healthcare, the military, and manufacturing, but we kept coming back to e-commerce order fulfillment,” he recalled. “There’s a huge shortage of people for picking in warehouses, which represented an opportunity.”

The team and business plan helped RightHand Robotics with getting funding, according to Jentoft.

“We had a good connection between a strong group of people building the technology and the market opportunity,” he said. “Andy Rubin was impressed, and we connected the hardware and software.”

“Software is where the magic is — that was really the kicker here,” he said. “It comes down to business factors and solving commercial needs.”

Pick and place evolves

“We got started with the 2010 DARPA Autonomous Robotic Manipulation challenge, building hands for IED [improvised explosive device] disposal,” Jentoft explained. “Being able to deal with dynamic environments has enormous relevance to logistics.”

“We’re at the right place at the right time,” he added. “Five years ago, we didn’t have depth cameras, we didn’t know about machine learning, and we didn’t have the production techniques.”

RightPick includes a “sensorized” gripper that works with industry-leading robotic arms. The system’s back end uses machine learning to distinguish and handle multiple types of items.

“Our technology goes beyond cameras,” Jentoft said. “We need giant data sets of what works and doesn’t work for a richer understanding of what’s going on with grasp.”

According to RightHand, the e-commerce industry is evolving “away from bulk or pallet-load handling toward single SKUs [stock-keeping units], and piecemeal items expands along with it.”

“The supply chain of the future is more about pieces than pallets,” said Jentoft. “RightHand can help material handling, third-party logistics, and e-commerce warehouses lower costs by increasing automation.”

RightPick is designed to reduce costs and improve order-fulfillment reliability, and RightHand claims that its pick and place system is easy to set up, support, and integrate.

“That’s a core difference between what we’re seeing in our logistics robot versus factory systems,” Jentoft said. “This works for groceries, electronics, cosmetics, across e-commerce.”

Smarter and more flexible picking automation could eventually have uses beyond the supply chain, he acknowledged. “Let’s first show how picking works and figure out what can be done next,” said Jentoft.

Competition and cooperation

Although several robotics companies have recently entered the supply chain market, Jentoft wasn’t worried about competition for RightHand Robotics.

“There are two things that are interesting,” he said. “First, a rising tide lifts all boats. The more success stories there are, the more everybody wins.”

Pick and place robot RightPick uses machine learning.

RightPick uses machine learning to handle various objects, such as this T-shirt bag.

“Second, our long-term edge is that you need a large amount of data for effective piece picking,” said Jentoft. “There’s a network effect of different items and systems.”

“Having the amount of information we need is very important — we take very little info from object itself,” he added. “While it can also take SKU data, this makes the system fast to set up or redeploy.”

RightHand has worked with robot providers, whose industrial arms provide “good cycle times,” Jentoft said. “Our hardware and software is agnostic across those robot arms.”

“We have partnerships with good companies,” he noted. “We’re already in trials in warehouses, and our systems are on the ground fulfilling orders.”

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Next steps for pick and place

The next steps for RightHand Robotics are piloting the pick and place technology with larger customers, getting positive results, and scaling out, Jentoft said.

RightHand will be among the exhibitors at next month’s ProMat. The event will be collocated with Automate in Chicago.

The company plans to demonstrate its products for piece picking, sorter induction, and autobagging induction. It will also display its automated goods-to-robot storage and retrieval system.

In addition, RightHand co-founder Yaroslav Tenzer will give a presentation on “Robotic Piece-Picking: Is Your Warehouse Ready?”

“For picking work, the time isn’t in the future; it’s yesterday,” said Jentoft.