November 21, 2017      

As supply chains large and small meet the holiday rush, some companies have been actively investigating the best ways to apply robotics, autonomous systems, and the Internet of Things to their operations. DHL has been evaluating multiple supply chain robots as it works to be an industry leader.

Robotics Business Review recently spoke with Matthias Heutger, senior vice president of strategy, marketing, and innovation, and Denis Niezgoda, robotics accelerator lead at DHL, about their company’s adoption of automation. They described how DHL views supply chain robots as “colleagues.”

How is DHL already using automation? How long has the company been using robotics?

Heutger: In our Express, parcel, and mail business, there’s a high degree of automation in our centers. It’s very standardized in traditional applications.

In warehouses, however, a recent robotics report found that the level of automation was relatively low — 80% of our operations were still manual.

There’s room for robots in sorting mail centers, increasingly in less-standardized operations, such as warehousing fulfillment.

Within 15 years, we’ve used robots in high-volume settings. Within the past three years, we’ve started with emerging technologies like collaborative robots and artificial intelligence. There has been rapid development.

Warehouses require flexibility and adaptability. We’re looking at cobots for packing and AGVs [automated guided vehicles] in a more flexible way. They used to have to be guided, but that’s not needed anymore.

We have dedicated resources to this topic, and we believe we’ll see significant, faster development.

When you describe “robots as colleagues,” what exactly do you mean? The common perception is that robots are replacing or displacing human workers in warehouses.

Heutger: The two developments that we see in many countries are volume driven by commerce and a shortage of labor in aging societies.

Just to cope with increasing volume in logistics, we need to find ways to support human workers with cobots. We want to enable people to work in healthy environments and for longer. With cobots, you don’t need robots in cages; they can work jointly on same conveyor belt with people.

Locus supply chain robots

Warehouse automation is one of the strongest areas for mobile robot growth.

Robots can take on repetitive tasks, leaving more interesting activities for humans.

But as with all new technologies, there might be a shift in some industries in job profiles. In the past, people were concerned about the emerging IT environment, but computers created far more jobs. We expect the same– more new jobs.

How user-friendly are DHL’s robots? Do you have a dedicated staff, or do you train people to work alongside them?

Heutger: For most collaborative robots, you don’t have to be a trained engineer or programmer. They’re easy to integrate into our workflow and train on certain tasks. There is some development and integration, but that’s not unusual. We had a team helping out across groups, but not like big automation systems in the past.

Based on the technology and use case, there are different levels of integration to consider. Look at piece-picking robots or those that transport stuff. They now have intuitive interfaces, so it takes just a couple of hours for workers to adapt and change workflows.

Who are your supply chain robotics providers, and are you looking to add specific types of robots to your operations?

Heutger: We’re in the process of bringing in robots from EffiMat, Fetch, Locus Robotics, and Rethink. We join pilots and work on concepts with them.

We continuously screen the market, since cobots are a developing segment. We’re testing new providers, depending on the use case. Some are a better fit than others.

Niezgoda: We launched robotics challenge for mobile piece picking, encouraging startups that have good prototypes to show them.

There are different use cases for different robots. So far, there’s not an integration problem. Eventually, we may pick a preferred [provider], but at this time, that’s not needed yet.

Numerous companies — both robotics suppliers and end users — are moving into the logistics market. Why now, and do you see this growth continuing?

Heutger: We think this will continue. There are a lot of startups and some challenges — like mobile piece picking — that have yet to be addressed.

Some will be more successful, some may disappear or be acquired, but the development of new companies and robots will continue.

There are relatively few international standards for worker safety and supply chain robots — is DHL working to develop and promote such standards?

Heutger: There are certain certifications needed for robots to be deployed. We will only deploy robots that are certified to be safe and secure in the environment we operate in.

Niezgoda: Regarding robots we’re already deploying — the vendor certifies itself, then there’s a second risk assessment, then certification of eligibility to be deployed. The suppliers and integrators responsible for that.

Supply chain robots include collaborative systems.

DHL is actively exploring the use of different cobots.

Most of the robots are not an issue to be deployed. For example, Rethink’s Sawyer is already certified, but if we gave it a knife to open boxes, then we would have to cage the robot.

With the first ISO norms, cobots are being more standardized for safety.

How can pick-and-place or mobile supply chain robots improve? What about the intelligence and software that controls them?

Heutger: In our robotics challenge, robots followed a picker, which autonomously navigated. They’re already do that well.

Sawyer and Baxter do picking well, but there’s still the challenge of doing both moving and picking. There’s also the challenge of being fast enough to pick different types of objects.

Niezgoda: With visual image recognition, the items to be manipulated are usually of standardized quality and size. We’ve used some grippers 3D-printed in house.

Two success factors are critical: software and image recognition. For visual recognition, the self-learning system needs to understand and adapt to its environment.

A robot that can do everything in a real-life warehouse environment for five to seven days a week must be able to cooperate and adapt to abnormal patterns. Such supply chain robots will take three to five years to develop.

Does DHL expect to manage heterogeneous environments of supply chain robots from different companies? If so, how will it integrate and manage them?

Heutger: It gets more complicated when getting into pilots — some robots require more integration. Most cobots can be managed and set up internally. We’re learning to do the integration in-house.

Some tests are in earlier stages than others, such as warehouses, self-guided vehicles within our operations. There are significant developments for AGVs, and we could also be testing cleaning robots.

Niezgoda: It’s all about moving things from Point A to Point B. Pick and place is a value-added service.

Next to the warehouse business, there’s loading and unloading. Most goods come from ocean or road freight. Automated container loading could have huge potential, but from an economic perspective, the viability is not there yet.

Is DHL looking at autonomous vehicles, drone deliveries, and the Internet of Things? Does it expect to use them soon? Would it combine them for end-to-end delivery systems?

Heutger: There are many use cases [for autonomous systems]. Everyone is testing drones. We actively tested quadcopters in warehouses.

The application outside controlled premises will remain niche for the time being. In my view, drone deliveries will mainly be in remote areas. Medical deliveries to islands or mountains make sense, but drone deliveries in cities will require laws, acceptance, and, most importantly, economics.

IoT is at the heart of what we’re doing. We are quite active in that space, and have collaborated with Cicso and others. We’re working on a nice pilot with a startup on heat mapping what’s in the warehouse.

The key part is having the visualization of people or objects to know where they are and how they move. The key is in the analytics and supply-chain optimization to know what to do next.

We’ll keep testing pick and place, and that extends into self-driving vehicles. We’re already testing the “follow me” function from our last challenge within our walls to see if it can support couriers in delivering packages.

More on Supply Chain Robots:

What have the reactions been to increasing development and use of supply chain robots?

Heutger: It’s exciting that we have such an interest in our industry. Four or five years ago, logistics was boring. Now, the amount of venture capital flowing, innovation, and interest is good for us. More technology means that other companies are interested in entering our space.

We’ve worked with Amazon in many areas, and we’re conducting tests for other companies. It’s a great opportunity to drive further efficiencies.

Employee feedback is mostly positive. People feel they’re working for and innovative company. They’re really embracing robotics and things like smart glasses so far.

Niezgoda: If you look at the robots we’re already using, they actively support humans and look friendly. There is some uncertainty, but once people get involved, it becomes less of an issue or threat.

There’s more potential beyond the four walls of our facilities.

Editor’s Note: Justin Ha, senior manager of solutions design at DHL Exel Supply Chain, spoke in our general session on “Mastering Robotics and AI With Power Users” at RoboBusiness 2017.