Conventional mechanical grips are too indelicate for handling groceries, shielding many warehouses jobs from automation.
But online grocer Ocado has now overcome the challenge, with a helping hand from robotics experts at European universities and Disney.
The team has developed a robot arm called SoMa, standing for Soft Manipulation, which uses air pressure to control finger movements.
Ocado hopes the robot will increase automation at its warehouse in Hampshire. Robots already select and move crates with items that make up the orders, but workers have to bag them.
Eventually, SoMa could even be programmed to identify whether a fruit or vegetable is ripe enough for packaging.
Dr Graham Deacon, robotics research lead at Ocado, said in a statement: “The RBO Hand 2 offers a versatile, cost-effective and safe solution for robotic grasping and manipulation that integrates very well with Ocado’s highly-automated warehouses.”
But the robot arm isn’t the only mechanical helper set to be deployed in Ocado’s warehouse.
The researchers also developed a humanoid maintenance robot called SecondHands which will work with an employee to keep things shipshape.