thanksgiving pies | community servings | community servings pie in the sky

Dozens of volunteers worked busily to inspect and package thousands pies at the Boston Convention and Exhibition Center as part of the Community Servings' 'Pie in the Sky 2011' fundraiser.

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It takes a lot of manpower to ship out 25,000 Thanksgiving pies, and as Community Servings volunteers tackle that task for the nonprofit’s annual Pie in the Sky fundraiser, they’ll be getting some robotic help.

Chuck the Robot, from Waltham-based startup 6 River Systems, will help hundreds of volunteers process all these Thanksgiving pies inside an exhibit hall at Hynes Convention Center on Tuesday.

Chuck (named for the Charles River) was built as a warehouse robot with the same technology found in self-driving cars, explained Fergal Glynn, vice president of marketing and business development at 6 River Systems.

In a warehouse, Chuck autonomously moves around, improving productivity by leading people who pick packages off of shelves to the product in the most efficient route. This reduces extra walking back and forth, he said, and then those packages can also be placed on the robot, freeing up workers’ hands.

 

On Tuesday, those packages will be boxes of Thanksgiving pies.

The partnership came about thanks to mutual friends at 6 River Systems and Community Servings, a nonprofit that delivers medically-tailored meals to the chronically ill.

“They thought, well how could you take this warehouse robot which moves products from A to B and help automate some of the manual work that's happening in the convention center, such as moving pies from quality inspection to where they’re picked up for outgoing [delivery],” Glynn said, “allowing Pie in the Sky to continue to grow with the same number of volunteers.”

Community Servings old-school Thanksgiving pie bake sale goes modern

Pie in the Sky is a massive event for Community Servings. This year marks the 26th iteration of the fundraiser, which raises about $800,000 for the nonprofit, allowing it to continue to deliver 650,000 made-from-scratch meals a year.

“Over 100 different people, from restaurants, caterers and hotels, bake pies for us, generously donating them to us,” said Darcy Pfeifer of Community Servings. “We have to process and sort 25,000 pies all on the Monday and Tuesday before Thanksgiving.”

Hundreds of volunteers help, Pfeifer said, but they figured they could be more efficient. Plus, pies are pretty heavy, especially when packaged ten in a box. Community Servings sells four kinds of Thanksgiving pies: apple, pecan, pumpkin and sweet potato.

community servings | community servings pie in the sky | thanksgiving pies
Community Servings’ Pie Central hosts hundreds of volunteers, including corporate groups like New Balance, to help sort and process thousands of pies in the days before Thanksgiving. Credit: Amanda Marsden, Community Servings 

Chuck won’t ever replace Community Servings volunteers, Pfeifer and Glynn assured. Instead, the robot will help those volunteers be even more productive as they move thousands of Thanksgiving pies.

“We will always need the human volunteers to look at a pie,” for inspection, Pfeifer said. The less-than-perfect Thanksgiving pies are donated to places like Pine Street Inn, and the others get sorted via an assembly line before they’re shipped out across the state. “If a robot can help us move those 10 apple pies from point A to point B in the convention center, that would be really helpful.”

Chuck’s debut at the Community Servings fundraiser this year is a trial run, but both 6 River Systems and Community Servings hope the robot presence expands at next year’s event.

“Next year if its a go, [the question will be] how do they then have multiple robots on the floor at the Hynes Convention Center helping us source these pies,” Pfeifer said. “It’s taking an old-fashioned bake sale [and saying] how do we have robots help us do our jobs better?”