A new robot with delicate human-like fingers, designed for warehouse applications, was today unveiled in the UK by Cambridge Consultants.

“Hank” was developed to “emulate human dexterity at the point of picking diverse individual items from larger containers”, a supply chain activity in which so far robots had not been able to replace humans.

Bruce Ackman, logistics commercial lead at Cambridge Consultants, explained: “The logistics industry relies heavily on human labour to perform warehouse picking and packing, and has to deal with issues of staff retention and shortages. Automation of this part of the logistics chain lags behind the large-scale automation seen elsewhere.

“Hank’s world-leading sensory system is a game-changer for the logistics industry, making actions such as robotic bin picking and end-to-end automated order fulfilment possible.

“Adding a sense of touch and slip, generated by a single, low-cost sensor, means Hank’s fingers could bring new efficiencies to giant distribution centres,” he continued.

Hank uses soft robotic fingers moulded from silicone and hollow, with embedded sensors that have an air chamber running up the centres controlled by airflows that can flex the finger and apply force. The company said the fingers could be controlled “individually in response to the touch sensors”.

“This means that the end effector does not require millimetre-accurate positioning to grasp an object; like human fingers, they close until they ‘feel’ the object.

“With the ability to locate an object, adjust overall system position and then to grasp that object, Hank can apply increased force if a slip is detected and generate instant awareness of a mishandled pick if the object is dropped,” added Cambridge Consultants.

Traditional robot “hands” tend to rely on pinchers and suction appendages to grasp items, limiting the number and type of objects they can realistically pick and pack.