Inspired by Biological Systems, Soft Robotics Can Streamline “Pick and Pack” Operations

Illustration of a robotic arm

More and more every year, people are turning to e-commerce to fulfill most of their shopping needs. A 2021 survey by NerdWallet revealed that two thirds of Americans had planned to do the majority of their holiday shopping online, and 2022 is likely to yield similar results.

To answer the hunger for quick delivery and virtually endless product selection, online shopping giants like Amazon have built fulfilment centers around the country and have even gone as far as to invest in robots to find products in their mammoth warehouses and bring them to human packers. But could the need for efficiency bring even more automation into the fold?

Euisun Kim, PhD, assistant teaching professor of mechanical engineering and mechanics, think so. The principal investigator behind the Bio-Inspired Robotics & Design (BIRD) Lab in Drexel Engineering, Kim studies how robotics that mimic biological functions can improve the “pick and place” aspect of order fulfillment.

“It would be easy to develop a robot that can fit a single need or pack a single product. In fact, you’ve seen that done plenty of times,” Kim explained. “But when you have a variety of items with different sizes and shapes, and some that are soft while others aren’t, you need a better solution.”

Kim traces her interest in robotics back to high school, when she saw a documentary on rehabilitation engineering.

“I was fascinated with wheelchair technology and prosthetics and computers that interfaced with the brain to help people’s quality of life,” she said. “That’s what really got me to study mechanical engineering.”

After completing her PhD work developing a robotic system for therapy intervention, Kim took what she had learned about how robotics can help biological systems and started to think about how the reverse could also apply.

“My current focus is on soft robotics, which in some ways is literally what it says it is: robotics made from soft material,” she explained. “But it’s also about looking at how the way that biological systems treat the world around them and finding a way for robotics to mimic that.”

Some industries already use soft robots to pick and package their items. Soft-tipped pincers are controlled by compressed air to open or close on a single type of product. Kim is currently working with a PhD student to research the current state of soft grippers and find opportunities where biologically-inspired design can make the most impact. She imagines a future where soft robots can be programmed to pick and package different kinds of products, reducing the need for different kinds of grippers to handle different things.

“We take inspiration from how an octopus uses its leg to grip around something, or how a worm will move by flexing its muscles to make itself long and then short again,” she said. “We can apply those same kinds of motions to grab a hold of thanks of various sizes without needing to completely reprogram the robot each time to handle an object of a different size. This will make warehouses more efficient, less error prone, and ultimately make the end users that much happier.”