A robotics start-up is revolutionising supply chains with an octopus-inspired robot.

There are two things you need to know about soft robotics. First, it’s an academic field that’s developing robots out of rubbery, non-rigid materials. Second, it’s the name of an ambitious Boston start-up that’s having a huge effect on supply chain across the e-commerce, advanced manufacturing and food production industries.

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See how Soft Robotics is helping to reduce food waste.

They say that 20%
to 30% of the food grown in California goes to waste in the supply chain. In the actual scenario, it’s 40% to 50%.

Carl Vause
CEO, Soft Robotics

“We’re a company that took that field of work out of Harvard University about six years ago because it solves a really important part of robotics,” explains Carl Vause, CEO, Soft Robotics, “which is, how to get a robot to interact with things that vary, in size, shape, weight or are soft and easily damaged.”

If you’ve had any experience with robotics, you’ll know that robots are very good at simple tasks, like moving something from one part of a factory to another. What they haven’t been very good at, however, is picking up and packing a range of different items, particularly delicate food items like eggs or strawberries, or flimsy apparel items. That is, until now.

We want to make a world where all food that is grown or farmed gets to market.

Carl Vause
CEO, Soft Robotics

One of the things that makes Soft Robotics different is its technical approach. When discussing the early development work by Professor George Whitesides, the company’s academic founder, Carl says, “Instead of using the human hand as inspiration, he used the octopus as the inspiration.”

What this shift in perspective ultimately led to is a soft robotic hand, also commonly known as a gripper, that gently wraps around items and envelops them. In this way, a single robot can pick up an infinite number of items – big, small, soft, round.

When you think that now any one robot can have the ability to handle the huge variety of products that line our supermarket shelves, it’s revolutionary. Which is good news for companies looking to make supply chain improvements.

Eliminate global 
food waste

“They say that 20-30% of the food grown in California goes to waste in the supply chain. In the actual scenario,” clarifies Carl, “it’s somewhere between 40% and 50%. And a lot of that is due to wastage in handling. It’s ridiculous how much food gets thrown away.”

Carl believes this level of food wastage is unacceptable because it’s unnecessary. He claims that with their technology, food companies can already reduce waste significantly, adding that soft robotics will soon be the new standard.

“When a large percentage of food doesn’t get to market, it makes the price of the food that did get to market go up,” says Carl. “It also wastes the time and resources spent growing and watering that food, and when it goes bad it has to be ploughed under which creates more greenhouse gases.”

Whether you’re vegan or carnivore, we all play a part in the food supply chain and, equally, food waste affects us all, but this is one company that’s doing something that will help everyone. “We want to make a world,” Carl says, “where Soft Robotics can ensure that all food that is grown or farmed, gets to market.”

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