DHL opened its Americas Innovation Center in northwest suburban Chicago Thursday, complete with demonstration robots, conference areas, smart glass displays (for human bin picking) and other amenities to demonstrate to customers the company’s capabilities in the warehouse, logistics and other areas of the supply chain.
The 28,000 square-foot facility was designed to provide a collaborative space for DHL to work with its customers, technology partners, and academics, as well as tap the innovative power of its employees. Establishing the new center in the Americas is a high point in the celebration of DHL’s 50th anniversary this year. The opening event drew more than 300 guests, including technology and logistics industry leaders, customers from across the region, local officials and DHL executives.
The Americas Innovation Center is the third of its type for the company, joining the DHL Innovation Center in Cologne, Germany, and the Asia Pacific Innovation Center in Singapore.
According to DHL executives, the innovation center is the highlight of investments of the four DHL business units operating in the Americas are planning in coming years in the development and adoption of new technologies that can improve operations, improve the customer experience, lower costs and facilitate better workplace processes for its employees.
“The opening of the Innovation Center marks DHL’s 50th anniversary,” said Ken Allen, CEO of DHL eCommerce Solutions and board member for Deutsche Post DHL Group Customer Solutions & Innovation, which is responsible for the company’s largest customers. “DHL has always been a pioneer in innovations. E-commerce and the digital revolution are driving [innovation] demand.” He added that the location, moments from Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport, was chosen because DHL has numerous customers in the immediate area and because the proximity of the airport made it easy for non-local customers to get to the facility.
Allen also said Chicago was chosen rather than a spot on either coasts because the city’s centralized location is more amenable to a larger range of DHL’s customers around the globe.
Robots and warehousing
The America’s Innovation Center is designed to showcase DHL’s logistics and related capabilities, including the use of robots for various warehousing and other supply chain uses.
Among the robots the company has at its innovation center are mobile units from Locus Robotics designed to work with humans to minimize movement in warehouse facilities. Without such assistance, the human worker walks from 9 to 13 miles a day in such a facility, according to DHL. With the use of the mobile robots, the workers remain in relatively confined areas to pick various products, with the robot handling the majority of the transportation of the products from the aisles throughout the facility to the “front” or other area for shipping.
For heavier loads – 600 pounds or more, depending on the size of the robot, DHL displayed an EffiBOT, from the French firm Effidence. The EffiBot is a fully automated cart that follows pickers through the warehouse. Once activated, the robot’s sensor follow the human workers legs, moving at the pace of the human – from slowly to a sprint. The worker can place one or several objects into the cart and then lead it to subsequent station(s).
The company also showed a bin-picking robot, complete with a Universal Robotics arm and a suction gripper, as well as overhead cameras and artificial intelligence designed to guide the unit for its pick-and-place operation.
The facility also includes areas for workshops or presentations, meeting rooms for smaller gatherings, video display areas for education, training, etc., and a design that promotes the “feel” various supply chain innovations (i.e., block chain) throughout the space.
The supply chain is undergoing tremendous disruption due to ecommerce, transition from manual to autonomous movement of goods and other changes, said Matthias Heutger, DHL global head of innovation and commercial development. Yet much of this disruption is still at its earliest stages. Eighty percent of goods movement in warehouses is still manual today, so the introduction of robotics and other automation is still in its earliest stages.
Innovations will continue to evolve, Heutger added, pointing to the ongoing transition from very standardized products to more personalized goods and from reactive analyses to predictive forecasts.
Among the company’s earlier announced tech investments:
- DHL Supply Chain said last November it would be investing $300 million in 2018 and through this year to deploy emerging technologies to 350 of its 430 North American facilities and transportation control towers, including plans to quadruple its fleet of robots. The company is also investing in the development of a new digital platform to manage its transportation operations.
- DHL Express is adding more automation at its regional hubs, gateways and service centers, introducing robotics to help with shipment loading/unloading, expand the use of AI and machine learning for better route optimization, apply repetitive process automation for billing tasks, as well as continue the addition of chatbots and voice recognition tools for bookings, order tracking and improved customer service.
- DHL Global Forwarding is working with improved technology to track packages and handle temperature-sensitive shipments as well as implementing warehouse automation with RFID tracking to track cargo location, shipment consolidation and shipping schedules. DHL Global Forwarding this week unveiled a new advanced data analytics tool designed for clients with highly sensitive cargo such as the life sciences and healthcare sector, which company officials said is a highly siloed industry that can produced better outcomes (such as better transportation solutions) with centralized analytics. The solution is designed to provide quick analysis and insights for better decision-making such as the optimal trade lanes to utilize, verification of temperature controls in transit (critical for some medicines) and the ability to analyze and reduce risks.
- DHL Express, DHL Global Forwarding is using virtual reality for employee training programs in several countries in the Americas.
- DHL eCommerce Solutions is also using automation and robotics to improve productivity in its distribution centers as well as new software solutions to optimize inventory management for its merchants and improve the last-mile delivery for consumers.