Like many other businesses dealing with an explosion of e-commerce shipping orders, the volume of packages going through the warehouse was becoming problematic.
The packages went through the sortation system, down long roller conveyors in a downhill slope, and then into the truck. The boxes were of varying sizes and were coming rapidly, leaving the truck loader to deal with an avalanche of boxes.
"We are working with our customers so they can monitor how full the load lanes are and use electroadhesion inside the rollers to automatically control the box flow," said Grabit CEO Greg Miller.
Electroadhesion is a process that harnesses electrostatic force to handle all types of material. By equipping the rollers themselves with electroadhesion, the loaders receive boxes to load on a just in time basis.
"It's a good system and truck loaders love it because boxes are coming at them when they need it," said Miller, who said this process allows for big improvements in efficiency regarding time to load and utilizing space.
The business' roots are in the exploratory work done by founder Dr. Harsha Prahlad while at SRI International. He was working on a government contract job, searching for a way to enable robots to climb up a wall, when he formed the process that would become Grabit's foundation, according to Miller.
"Dr. Prahald invented electroadhesion ... to enable robotic innovation," Miller said.
SRI spun the technologies out and formed Grabit Inc. in 2013, and Miller joined cofounder Prahlad, who now serves as chief technology and products officer, in 2016.
Based in Sunnyvale, Calif., the business now employs 28 team members, primarily focused on engineering and development, Miller said. Manufacturing is done by contract manufacturers.
Grabit has made products for NIKE and Miller said the large shirt manufacturer Esquel is also an investor. On the warehouse logistics side, in addition to projects like an electroadhesion-based conveyor belt, Miller said future opportunities like rapid sortation are in the works.
"Rather than using a mechanical system to push boxes off a sorter belt, we can use electroadhesion so they'll slide off," Miller said.
Grabit is working with several big names in the package shipping business, according to Miller, and the conveyor belt manufacturer Forbo and Dorner, a large conveyance company.
The latter developed a SmartGrip conveyor using Grabit's technology that holds boxes and packages securely to belts moving at fast speeds and along steep inclines and declines, according to a press release.
"The SmartGrip Conveyor provides adhesion on demand to hold boxes and packages to the belt without the use of cleats or other holding attachments. Grabit’s electroadhesion technology acts like a magnet, and is activated by a switch to create a strong holding force between the box or package and the belt, which is supplied by Forbo," the release said.
In addition to projects already in motion, Grabit is also on the lookout for areas its technology can enable things currently not possible in manufacturing and warehouse logistics, according to Miller.
"We are developing products that enable automation where not before possible," he said. "The whole warehouse logistics area is exploding with commerce. Our customers want to push more packages through their existing infrastructure and that's where we're coming in to help."
Currently, Miller said Grabit is ramping up production to meet customer demands and is rapidly growing on the revenue side.
The business leaders also expect to push more products in soft goods and foresee continuing opportunities in e-commerce as everyone from giants like Amazon to small businesses look to fulfill customer expectations.
There also is potential in agricultural warehouses where today most fruit and vegetables are sorted manually, and Miller said the traditional robotic systems can sometimes bruise products.
Grabit's products are made with partners in the U.S. and are exported to Mexico and China, with Vietnam an expected future destination.
When fielding inquiries, Grabit will typically have companies send materials for testing and video documentation with electroadhesion.
“Material handling presents many challenges in the movement of diverse materials, but it also offers endless opportunities for Grabit,” Miller said.
"Everything has electrons. Whether a flimsy piece of fabric or box or fruit or iPhone, they all have electrons so we can cause that static cling to happen with virtually everything," he said.
Eileen Schmidt is a freelance writer and journalist based in the Greater Milwaukee area. She has written for print and online publications for the past 12 years. Email firstname.lastname@example.org or visit eileenmozinskischmidt.wordpress.com to contact Eileen.