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The robots that pack bread during the pandemic

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During the pandemic, robots are the literal breadwinners.

As Samir Menon, the founder and CEO of robotics startup Dexterity, told Fortune, the “coronavirus took us a bit on a wild ride.” Dexterity, a roughly two-and-a-half-year-old startup that’s raised $56.2 million in funding from investors like Kleiner Perkins and Lightspeed Venture Partners, specializes in software that makes industrial robots, like mechanical grippers and machines that pick-and-place items, more capable.

Among the customers that have relied on Dexterity’s technology during the pandemic is Bimbo Bakeries, which produces some well-known baked goods via brands like Sara Lee, Oroweat, and Boboli. Because Dexterity is working with Bimbo Bakeries, the startup has been deemed an “essential business,” since the food supply chain needs to continue operating unperturbed amid the lockdowns.

In an online demonstration from its Redwood City, Calif. headquarters last week, Menon showed Fortune an example of how robots outfitted with the company’s technology help prep pre-packaged loaves of bread for delivery to places like grocery outlets.

For the demonstration, two robots with mechanical arms cruised down a railing that ran between two sets of blue crates, each loaded with various loaves of bread. The robots needed to coordinate with each other so they didn’t bump into one another while they transported loaves from one set of crates to the other—a common task used for facilitating bread shipments.

Dexterity demonstrates how its software helps robots pick-and-place loaves of bread.
Dexterity demonstrates how its software helps robots pick-and-place loaves of bread.

Using computer vision technologies, a robot could recognize when one empty crate on its right side lacked enough bread loaves, triggering its mechanical arm to pick up a bread loaf from a crate on its left side. The robotic arms can figure out how much pressure is needed to apply to a particular object, which is helpful so they don’t smash a spongy material like bread when they grip it. The software also helps the robot decide to gently lower the bread and other objects into a crate instead of dropping it carelessly into a container, which Menon described as a sort of Achilles heel for some pick-and-place machines. 

Although Dexterity’s software helps the robots map out their surroundings so they can maneuver autonomously throughout a facility, Menon said the robots are typically affixed to a railing so that people can rest assured the machines won’t suddenly go somewhere they aren’t supposed to.   

“It’s important for them to feel comfortable,” Menon said regarding humans who work alongside the robots.

Menon said that Bimbo Bakeries is currently using Dexterity’s technology at a few unspecified facilities on the “east and west coasts” of the U.S. He declined to comment on the number of robots that have been outfitted with Dexterity’s software at the Bimbo Bakeries facilities. 

Dexterity is a young company, so it’s still refining its technology for customers. During one demonstration for Fortune, a robotic arm installed with the startup’s software dropped a glass measurement cup onto a table instead of gently placing it down, and while the beaker didn’t break, it was a definite no-no. Menon noted prior to that particular demonstration that translucent objects like glass containers are a “bane of any computer-vision” technology. 

Still, as long as the pandemic rages on, it’s likely companies with big supply chains like Bimbo Bakeries will continue turning to companies specializing in robotics in order to run their deliveries without too many hiccups.

“We feel grateful to be actually shipping bread,” Menon said.

Jonathan Vanian 
@JonathanVanian
jonathan.vanian@fortune.com

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