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Meet Carl Vause of Soft Robotics in Cambridge

Today we’d like to introduce you to Carl Vause.

So, before we jump into specific questions about the business, why don’t you give us some details about you and your story.
At the beginning of the decade, Professor George Whiteside’s from Harvard University helped rewrite the rules of what a machine could be with the development of biologically inspired “soft robots,” as part of a Harvard and DARPA collaboration. The challenge was to create a robot that could make its way underneath a pane of glass just three-quarters of an inch above the surface. While most robotic engineers attempted to solve this problem with traditional, rigid robots, Dr. Whiteside’s drew inspiration from nature to create a new class of soft robots made entirely of elastomeric polymers. It was that challenger mindset that made way for a complete breakthrough in the field of robotics.

The earliest applications of the technology to come out of the DARPA collaboration were in surgery and other biomedical applications. But we saw a major unmet need and opportunity in industrial automation. If the robot could safely manipulate and transport organs and soft tissue without damage, it could easily grasp delicate and variable products that had previously been off-limits to automation, like fresh produce or consumer goods. In 2013 Soft Robotics was born.

Unstructured, delicate, and continuously changing tasks used to represent a challenge for automation. Soft Robotics’ technology can manipulate objects that vary in shape, size and weight, and that are easily damaged. We saw the most immediate need for this type of technology in food and agriculture, advanced manufacturing and e-commerce, where automation is needed not only to meet increasing market demand and labor scarcity, but to manipulate the variable and fragile nature of the product.

Today, the company is a global enterprise solving previously off-limits automation challenges for our customers. We have commercially released version 1.0 of our technology to more than 60 customers and have production installations in the food & beverage and advanced manufacturing industries. Our customers range from the largest pizza retail company in the world to small, to tier two auto parts manufacturers, to raw meat processing factories, to automated produce harvesting applications. Proven across hundreds of mils of products picked and placed, Soft Robotics is quickly starting to become the solution for customers formerly struggling to get their product to those who need it.

Great, so let’s dig a little deeper into the story – has it been an easy path overall and if not, what were the challenges you’ve had to overcome?
Our focus as a company has been on advancing the technology into a commercial product and launching it with customers around the globe. While Harvard and DARPA had grown a robust foundational IP platform over nine years of development, our challenge was to take an academic technology from the bench and into the market to meet the highest automation standards of Fortune 100 customers.

DARPA and Harvard had built grippers, but we needed to solve for how to control them, evolving the technology into a solution that could operate reliably, repeatedly and at high speeds for customers in food and beverage, advanced manufacturing and ecommerce. We advanced the grippers and incorporated FDA compliant materials to meet the food handling sanitation guidelines as outlined in the Food Modernization & Safety Act. We also designed and developed an electro-pneumatic control system enabled by proprietary firmware to give customers full control of grip parameters including speed, force, gripper spacing, and opening width.

We also recognized the power of AI and machine learning and what it could do when paired with our system. Once you solve for the human hand in robotics, you can use machine learning to train robots how to grasp and manipulate the ever-increasing number of SKUs in industries like ecommerce. Human supervised automation of highly unstructured tasks like bin picking, sorting, and even harvesting is now a reality. This vision for a “robotic-human alliance” has manifested itself into version 2.0 of our technology, SuperPick, designed specifically for the unstructured environments in e-commerce and logistics. By replacing numerical computation with material science, Soft Robotics can simplify the machine learning problem of robotic grasping by 2-3 orders of magnitude.

A challenge for any growing startup is scaling to meet customer demand. When we started the company, we were intentional about seeding the market, being selective with our first customers to ensure that we properly validated the technology across our industry verticals and that we created customer champions. Today we are at a pivotal inflection point as a company, as demand has poured in from customers across our core segments. We are in the process of building out a commercial team that can execute across geographies and channels.

Please tell us about Soft Robotics.
Soft Robotics designs and builds soft robotic gripping systems and automation solutions that can grasp and manipulate items of varying size, shape and weight. Spun out of the Whiteside’s Group at Harvard University, Soft Robotics is the only company to be commercializing this groundbreaking and proprietary technology platform. Today, the company is a global enterprise solving previously off-limits automation challenges for customers in food & beverage, advanced manufacturing and ecommerce. Soft Robotics’ engineers are building an ecosystem of robots, control systems, data and machine learning to enable the workplace of the future.

Most of robotic solutions today are based on hard linkages and vision systems, making it difficult to pick up soft and variable objects, like food, or interact safely with humans. Traditional robotic manufacturers have attempted to mimic the human hand with rigid linkages, sensors, and sophisticated vision systems. Soft Robotics’ novel approach solves this problem through material science, not through higher levels of cost and complexity. The design for Soft Robotics’ technology was inspired by the octopus, a paradigm shifts from the traditional robotics approach to address this unmet need with hard linkages, sensors, and servo motors. This inspiration led to the invention of soft robotic actuators made entirely of polymers that do not require sensors or other electromechanical devices for operation. The computational power of the system is built into the gripper itself, a proprietary blend of materials with microfluidic channels that when actuated, mimic the tentacles of an octopus to replicate the grasping and gripping capabilities of the human hand.

Only 12% of non-automotive industries are automated by robots today because we have been unable to solve for dexterous manipulation of variable product and unstructured tasks. By leveraging the properties of soft and compliant materials, we can build a fundamentally new set of adaptive and dexterous robotic hands and automation systems that open completely new applications. Labor starved industries such as food and beverage, advanced manufacturing and ecommerce can now realize the power of robotic automation.


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