DHL Supply Chain trialling robotic solutions
21 July 2017
Robotics and automation should be a natural fit in supply chains, offering an appropriate solution to the efficiency challenge. But while we have seen some businesses automate their operations to improve efficiencies and reduce errors, there are still relatively few examples of robotics helping meet the challenges of modern logistics and distribution, says Mark Parsons, chief customer officer, DHL Supply Chain.
Today, commercial robots are long established in the manufacturing side of the supply chain, while in contrast, only 20% of current warehouses are effectively using automation in their operations. This slow uptake has been the result of a number of technological barriers, mainly that robots have been stationary, blind, and relatively unintelligent, lacking the complexity and agility that the logistics industry requires.
With advances in automation, we are finally seeing robotics expanding from the world of manufacturing to more complex areas of the supply chain. Micro technology has enabled robots to be built which are small enough, flexible enough and smart enough to work alongside existing workforces in the warehouse. In contrast to industrial robots which have limited interaction with humans, today’s robots have the ability to see, pick, move and react. A focus on safety features and the creation of collaborative robots now allows existing employees to work alongside the robots in confidence as their enhanced sensing capabilities mean they will automatically stop if they touch anything unexpected. They are lighter, easier to programme, and more affordable due to swift progress in grip and sensor technologies.
We have been trialling a number of different automation and robotic technologies here at DHL, as it is clear that this technology will play an increasingly important role in the future supply chain. Ecommerce is just one of the distribution challenges which automation and robotics can support, and an example of the pace of change we are facing as an industry. With demands for packages to be picked and packed individually, and delivered directly to a customer’s door, businesses must adapt to the new logistical demands of ecommerce to ensure minimal impact to the bottom-line.
Flexible automation can be utilised in warehousing and fulfilment to assist workers with tasks such as picking, packing and sorting, and bring much-needed capacity to peak times. With collaborative robots equipped with high-resolution cameras, pressure sensors, and self-learning capabilities, they make moving from single to multi-order picking a more efficient and ergonomic process and help track complex inventory movements. We have already trialled the robot Effi-BOT in our warehouses, a fully automated trolley that follows pickers through the warehouse and takes care of most of the physical work.
We have also recently purchased four collaborative Sawyer robots and integrated them into our co-packing and production logistics centres, as first step of our wider robotics programme. These collaborative Sawyer robots are particularly well suited for picking and co-packing environments, and will be used flexibly across our 19 co-packing sites. Their ability to undertake a range of repetitive tasks on a variety of products and up-and-down-scalable nature will helps us fulfil e-commerce orders more efficiently and respond more effectively to peaks in demand.
It is clear that robotics has begun to revolutionise the supply chain, with significant technological advances creating a new generation of collaborative robots able to offer a genuine alternative to manual handling. It seems clear that it is not a matter of “if” but “when” robots will be working in our parcel sorting hubs, distribution centres, and delivery vans.
Through collaboration with robots, the logistics supply chain will be faster, safer and more productive, while customers will see faster service and higher quality. Supply chain leaders should prepare their processes and infrastructure to embrace new technology. The successful businesses of the future will be those which are able to take advantage of new technologies in automation.