Home>Distribution>3PLs>Logistics robots on the rise
Home>Automation>AGVs>Logistics robots on the rise
Home>Automation>Automated handling>Logistics robots on the rise

Logistics robots on the rise

19 November 2020

Advanced robotics and automation technologies are becoming increasingly commonplace due to lower costs, improved capabilities, and the availability of products tailored to the needs of the industry, according to The Logistics Trend Radar from DHL. Simon Duddy reports.

After slow growth in the last two decades, the uptake of industrial robots is expected to increase globally almost seven-fold to 20 million by 2030. This will have a major impact on industries like logistics, and transform today’s way of working.

A McKinsey report estimates 49% of paid human labour activities, or $16 trillion in paid wages, could already be automated with existing technology.

Furthermore, a recent survey found that half of US and two-thirds of Chinese executives anticipate employment decreasing in the next 5 years because of advanced robotics. While worrying, automation does not necessarily mean a complete loss of jobs, merely a shift in the types of jobs, especially those involving critical thinking or creativity. The World Economic Forum expects automation to replace 75 million jobs globally by 2022 yet also generate 133 million new ones.

HSS Live

The pandemic, Brexit and the longer term trend of eCommerce mean warehousing and logistics operations are changing fast. Get up to speed and get insight on innovative solutions you can use to revamp your operations.

The "New normal" - AMRs in a time of disruption - Denis Niezgoda, VP Europe, Locus Robotics

Saving space and boosting productivity - Martin McVicar, MD, Combilift

‘Off the Shelf’ automated solutions within 3 months - Shane Faulkner, Head of Sales, Swisslog 

Do the detail in eFulfillment - Nick Fox, Head of Logistics - Europe, at fashion retailer Theory

Warehouse Property: Aftershock and pre-Peak - Kevin Mofid, Head of Industrial Research, Savills


Other key drivers influencing the future of work are: the aging workforce and the subsequent global industry labour shortage; the rise of millennials and Gen Z who seek jobs with more purpose, fewer repetitive tasks, and more flexible and enjoyable work environments; and Covid-19, which introduced significant change

as many businesses quickly embraced remote working technologies that existed for years. With the post-pandemic era uncertain, it remains to be seen how these changes will persist in future.

Micro-fulfillment is a focus topic for novel automation and robotics technologies, encapsulating the concept of small-scale warehouse facilities in urban locations, close to the consumer. These new mini inventory and distribution hubs provide valuable opportunities for instant and short-time delivery to a large number of customers. Walmart has partnered with Alert Innovation for a robot-powered micro-fulfillment centre in one of its existing stores, while American grocer Albertsons and Netherlands-based grocer Ahold Delhaize are working with Takeoff Technologies for similar experiments at the back of neighbourhood supermarkets. Covid-19 seems to have increased demand for these urban facilities, with all top 100 grocers now looking at micro-fulfillment automation. Takeoff Technologies has more than 100 contracts and 10 centres already under construction.

Logistics industry players from traditional warehousing to new eComm startups are moving towards automated processes to boost throughput, cut costs, and meet growing customer demand. According to the International Federation of Robotics, $3.7 billion worth of logistics systems (111,000 robots) were sold in 2018, a 53% jump from the year before. By 2022, this is expected to grow to $22.5 billion as more processes along the supply chain are matched with robotic solutions.

Locus picking robots

As people sheltered at home and as retail stores closed during the height of the pandemic, there was a dramatic increase in eComm volumes. But at the same time fulfillment facilities were facing labour shortages as staff became sick or needed to self-isolate. Assisted picking robots such as those from Locus Robotics helped more automated facilities to meet the sudden spike in demand.

DHL signed a deal in March with Locus Robotics to deploy 1,000 robots from the company. Operating safely alongside human workers in mixed environments, AMRs can substantially improve productivity – up to 50% with point-to-point (P2P) transport with, say, bins or pallets, and up to 150% with assisted order picking, for example with eComm orders. 

In addition, in July Blue Yonder and DHL Supply Chain developed a software platform for implementing warehouse robots built on Microsoft Azure. The aim is to speed up the implementation of robots from different vendors in the logistics setting. The first implementation at DHL warehouse in Madrid reduced integration time by 60%. Locus Robotics and Blue Yonder (then called JDA Software) signed a fulfilment partnership in 2019. 

Indeed, Denis Niezgoda, Vice President, Europe, Locus Robotics will speak at the HSS Live! Virtual conference on December 1. Before joining Locus, Niezgoda served as Robotics Accelerator Lead at DHL Customer Solutions and Innovation. Denis will talk about how AMRs can help warehouse managers navigate the new normal, boosting efficiency and operational responsiveness. Register free at - https://bit.ly/2GQgTMI

Developing fast

Among the key innovations behind this trend are autonomous driving technologies for both indoor and outdoor mobile assets and new flexible picking and manipulation systems. Robots are becoming easier to integrate too, powered by machine learning and sensors that allow them to adapt rapidly to changing environments and work safely alongside logistics personnel.

Robotics are beginning to be delayed in complex operations previously thought impossible to automate cost effectively, for example, loading and unloading parcel and other loose items from trailers. Fizyr, which creates vision software to pick and place items in tricky logistic environments, is one leader in this emerging field. 

Another is Copal Handling Systems. Unloading trailers of loose shipments is one of the most physically demanding jobs in the logistics industry. It typically requires multiple people to work in close proximity within a container. For containers loaded with single-size cartons, robotic trailer unloading solutions such as those from Copal allow the partial automation of this task while keeping workers at a safe distance from each other.

Key robotics opportunities

  • Increase in agility and elasticity of logistics infrastructure to manage market fluctuations cost effectively
  • Better asset utilisation and overall productivity
  • Improved health and safety for supply chain employees
  • Automation of repetitive and physically strenuous tasks enables scarce labor to be assigned to more complex tasks

Key robotics challenges

  • Legal restrictions on the use of robots near human workers
  • Safety needs are likely to limit operational speeds for mobile and stationary robots
  • Ethical concerns and pushback from labour unions on the appropriate level of automation versus human job security

Stationary robots, also commonly known as articulated robotic arms, are approaching human-like performance and throughput; some have even exceeded this. For instance, AI robotics company Covariant set a new bar in early 2020 by managing to pick 10,000 unique items with over a 99% accuracy rate. As performance has improved over the past few years, a wider array of logistics applications has opened up to stationary robots beyond simply palletising heavier goods and other less complex operations.

Random bin picking, co-packaging, sorting orders into put walls, inducting objects onto conveyor belts – all are now supply chain tasks that are within the realm of intelligent and fast articulated robotic arms, sometimes surpassing human counterparts. In late 2018, DHL Supply Chain paired up with Robomotive to create a robot picking cell at its Beringe facility.

Not only could the two-gripper stationary robot reach a throughput of 600 picks per hour while depalletising from up to 4 different pallet positions, it did not need any master database to identify or correctly pick and depalletise the items. In other cases, robotic arms successfully sort 1,000 letters and small packages per hour and show productivity increases of up to 600% for (de)palletising operations. As these stationary robots proliferate, their costs are lowering and return on investment can now take less than 4 years.


Human-machine collaboration will accelerate in two ways – a growing presence of robots in more supply chain steps and an optimised safety buffer between humans and machines. More humans are exposed to and getting familiar with robots as machines expand in breadth and diversify, handling tasks from picking online orders with robotic arms to processing customs documents through workflow automation software. As robots proliferate in supply chains, they are also getting better. They are reaching levels in strength, speed, and precision that can sometimes match or even surpass human capability. Also with improved sensors and machine learning, robots have been able to work closer with humans, minimising the safety buffer and enabling more collaborative work.

The flexible, on-demand workforce will be a future model for both logistics office and operations roles. With 92% of millennials identifying flexible work schedules as a top priority and with Covid-19 challenging established workplace perceptions, businesses are rethinking many fundamental workplace assumptions to attract and retain talent. As the logistics industry is highly labour intensive and sensitive to fluctuations in the global economy, optimally matching the number of workers to operational demand is one of its biggest challenges. Here, mobile apps and dynamic staff scheduling software that matches temporary workers with high-demand facilities are likely to become commonplace in the near future.

Californian startup Phantom Auto engages this trend from a particular angle. Already contracted with last-mile delivery company Postmates and other logistics companies, Phantom Auto uses technology and hardware that allows workers to control remotely semi-autonomous sidewalk rovers, warehouse forklifts, and yard trucks from the comfort of their homes and local centres.

Employees are transported digitally around the world on demand to help guide vehicles when problems arise. All these opportunities can increase worker satisfaction and positively impact the company’s bottom line. With 60% of employees working flexibly, Dell has been able to cut down on office space, saving $12 million annually since 2014.

As its processes become more robotic and automated, Amazon has committed $700 million in training to upskill and retain 100,000 of its employees.


Intelligence and automation will soon support packaging decisions and handling throughout the entire lifecycle of a packaging system from design, through warehouse pick and-pack, to final disposal. Trade-offs between product protection requirements, usability, and resource consumption will be optimised in an automated manner. For example, American electronics retailer Best Buy has recently invested in box-making machines that minimise packaging for online orders, reducing shipped air while saving packaging material and void fill. It is estimated that on average a box is 40% too big for its contents. Eliminating just this excess volume would not only save enormous amounts of packaging material, diesel, and landfill space, but also in the United States alone 24 million truckloads annually.

Additionally, the rise of IoT devices enables companies to monitor, understand, and respond to the real-world conditions experienced by a growing number of products in transit and storage, so they can use data to determine more efficient packaging.

Automation itself will have its own effects on packaging. A 2020 survey from the Reusable Packaging Association found that 81% of almost 200 manufacturers and poolers expect automation to increase demand for reusable packaging, which can fulfill automation’s reliance on standardised containers and pallets. This reflects a growing partnership in the logistics industry between companies that provide automation and companies that produce sustainable packaging.

The Logistics Trend Radar from DHL covers a broad variety of technologies and trends. Download the full report here - https://bit.ly/3kA5P5n