In 2018, DHL Supply Chain announced its plans to deploy emerging technologies in 350 of its North American facilities. My colleagues and I often have the opportunity to discuss initiatives such as this with company executives. Of course, we subsequently share interesting insights in Logistics Viewpoints articles. Earlier this month, Brian Gaunt, Senior Director of Accelerated Digitization at DHL, provided me with an update on the company’s warehouse digitization journey.
DHL Innovation Funnel
DHL Supply Chain has instituted a well-defined process for vetting and adopting warehouse technologies. They conduct research, engage with partners (100+), and identify the opportunities that best align with their objectives. The most promising technologies enter the productization phase. Productization is the term DHL uses to describe technologies that have defined applications for use within DHL, that are supported by deployment guides along with established profile matches that identify “best fits” for the technology’s use within the organization. As an analogy, DHL has established parameters that enable these technologies to be used like “a tool in a toolbox.” DHL has defined twelve technologies with clear benefits to the company and its customers. These are categorical technologies such as “assisted picking robots” or “robotic arms” rather than the technologies of specific technology providers. There are currently more than 1500 go-lives of technologies that passed through the productization phase into commercialization and industrialization. Brian provided me with insights into some specific warehouse automation and robotics examples.
Autonomous Mobile Robots and AGVs
DHL’s partnership with Locus Robotics is well publicized. However, I did not realize the extent of its robotics deployment. Currently, DHL North America has over 2,000 bots deployed. DHL states that it has achieved 50 – 70 percent improvements in units picked per hour through its use of Locus Robotics’. My Logistics Viewpoints colleagues and I have seen the value in autonomous mobile robots (AMRs) in the warehouse for many years. However, we have generally focused on labor reduction through reduced walking time and distance as the value drivers. Therefore, I found it interesting that DHL Supply Chain has also identified some use cases in which load size, product dimensions, and carrying capacity are of heightened importance in achieving productivity improvements. In these situations, carrying capacity can be a greater impediment to productivity than worker travel distances between picking activities.
The use of AMRs in high-volume collaborative warehouse settings has received most of the media attention over the last five years. However, large load AGVs also provide the potential for significant productivity improvements if they are properly applied. DHL appears to have identified and captured one of those opportunities. DHL and Campbell Soup Company have deployed a fleet of Crown Equipment Reach Trucks supported by JBT’s autonomous technology. The high reach AGVs are used to access heavy loads stored high in double deep racking. In contrast to the operations that use Locus bots, this operation has lower volumes of heavier loads that require greater precision and care. Much of the benefit obtained from these AGVs in from inventory accuracy achieved through accurate inventory location ID and precise alignment for pallet load movements.
Robotic Arms – Trailer Unloading
I find the use cases for robotic arms in the warehouse to be expanding rapidly. I recently wrote about DHL eCommerce Solutions’ interesting use of DoraBot DoraSorters. DHL Supply Chain is also utilizing robotic arms in a novel application. DHL entered into a $15 million, multi-year agreement with BD to commercialize the Stretch robot. Being a native Bostonian, I have watched many of the videos highlighting Boston Dynamics robots in the form of a human or dog, climbing stairs, opening doors, etc. But I always wondered about the practical application of these impressive technologies. DHL has been working with Boston Dynamics to refine this solution for trailer unloading. Stationary robotic picking arms are fairly common in today’s logistics operations – typically utilized in palletizing or depalletizing. What makes Stretch novel is its mobility. This opens up many use cases. DHL is currently using Stretch for unloading of floor-loaded trailers – a fairly common occurrence in situations where the shipper looks to maximize storage density in a trailer. I personally found this technology to be the most interesting topic during the briefing. And I hope to see the technology in action sometime in the future!