Robots at Berkshire Grey’s innovation lab in Bedford have been busy picking up cans of green beans and packets of corn bread mix, placing the items into cardboard boxes as they shuffle down an artificial intelligence-powered assembly line.
This year, the robotics company is using its technology as part of a partnership with two food assistance nonprofits to provide Thanksgiving meals to more than 4,000 families as the pandemic heightens the need for assistance. Already, Berkshire Grey robots have packed tens of thousands of pounds of donated food into boxes.
“The system manages the inventory and knows how many of each [item] has to go in each outbound box,” said Tom Wagner, chief executive of Berkshire Grey, in an interview. “On one pass it might do green beans, on another pass it might do kidney beans, maybe the stuffing…at any given moment it is completing orders and starting new ones.”
Berkshire Grey’s robotics system is typically used by retailers and grocery chains to automate the fulfillment process.
Working with the Greater Boston Food Bank and City Harvest in New York, the company hopes to lessen the workload for volunteers at food banks, who often assemble donation boxes during the holiday season. Berkshire Grey is calling the initiative “Picking With Purpose.”
“It’s a couple people operating a system versus many people manually sorting the goods,” Wagner said, adding that the robots work at a comparable speed to humans. “The more important thing is that it removes the labor need for the food bank.”
Catherine D’Amato, chief executive of the Greater Boston Food Bank, said the partnership comes as food insecurity in Massachusetts has increased at a higher rate than in any other state during the health crisis. In a press release, she said the partnership with Berkshire Grey is “a promising innovation and will fill a critical need this holiday season, and beyond.”
Berkshire Grey first considered using its technology to assemble donation boxes several years ago, but “as a smaller business, we just wouldn’t have been able to support this,” Wagner said. Now, with $265 million in new funding from earlier this year, he said he hopes to make the philanthropic effort a regular occurrence, expanding to more cities as it attracts more partners.
In addition to its Bedford headquarters, the company also has a facility in Lexington.