Are robots revolutionising logistics?

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Once the sole preserve of the manufacturing industry, robots are quickly gaining an automated foothold in logistics. Whether it’s fulfilment, delivery or in the warehouse, bots are getting in on the action almost everywhere.

With robots turning up in just about every part of the logistics process, it feels like the industry is on the verge of a technological revolution. But why hasn’t it happened already? After all, modern factories and production plants are full of industrial robots. In fact, they’ve been making manufacturing processes more efficient since the early 60s.

The answer lies in the technology. Despite offering very high levels of precision and repeatability, standard industrial robots just aren’t versatile enough to cope with logistics.

To become an asset to the logistics industry they need to do more than just follow a preprogrammed motion path. They need to possess a level of sensory perception that goes way beyond the factory robot’s motion path capabilities.

Luckily, today’s artificial intelligence, sensor and vision technology is providing them with these sensory skills. It’s early days yet but already we’re beginning to see the arrival of some extremely viable solutions.

Taking to the streets

Last year, I read about a hi-tech start-up called Marble that was putting a fleet of intelligent courier robots onto the streets of San Francisco to deliver things like groceries, meals, and medicine. Equipped with advanced sensors and high-resolution 3D city maps, the wheeled delivery robots were designed to efficiently and politely navigate busy urban environments. Sadly, city officials put a stop to it, but the concept still provides good proof of the technology’s potential to work the last mile.

Similar robots have been tested in Germany and other automated delivery solutions are beginning to show up in other places too.

Companies like FetchinVia, and Seegrid are using similar solutions in fulfilment centres and warehouses. Designed with big e-commerce companies in mind, Fetch robots find, pick and place items in huge warehouse environments. Best of all, Fetch does not require the warehouse to be reconfigured with special shelving and additional robot-friendly infrastructure. This is a serious advantage since they can be implemented straight into existing warehouses. Being collaborative they also work safely alongside humans, which is not something every robot can do.

DHL tested the Fetch robots last year in a warehouse for customer Wärtsilä. The pilot proved these kinds of robots can really help streamline warehouse operations.

But what about coming at the problem from a different angle altogether? Rather than have the picker go to the shelf, why not have the shelf go to the picker. At the heart of this solution is a swarm of Kiva robots – squat orange machines on wheels – that glide effortlessly across the warehouse floor carrying tall upright shelf units to waiting dispatchers. Obviously, this system would be expensive to install in established warehouses but nevertheless offers a very effective solution if installed from scratch in new facilities.

At DPDHL, we’ve also got some neat solutions up our sleeves. With French robotics company Effidence, we’ve co-designed and trialed the EffiBOT and PostBOT logistics robots in Germany and are experimenting with other technologies too. Both solutions are fully automated trolleys that drastically reduce the human operator’s workload. EffiBOT, for example, follows the picker through the rack system and once full returns to the designated drop-off location while an empty trolley takes over. This solution makes moving from single to multi-order picking a more efficient and ergonomic process.

Likewise, PostBOT is designed to make life easier for Deutsche Post deliverers by transporting their heavy bundles of letters and parcels. Capable of carrying loads weighing up to 150kg, the robot follows the deliverer automatically along the entire delivery route, navigating around obstacles and stopping when necessary.

Intelligent automated solutions

In the Americas, DHL Supply Chain has tested LocusBots in a life science fulfilment centre. Just like EffiBOT, these are picking companions that work safely alongside warehouse staff, helping to quickly locate and transport pick items, so pickers don’t have to push carts or carry bins.

For co-packing and value-added tasks, we’ve also installed Baxter and Sawyer collaborative robots (cobots) in some of our warehouses. Unlike traditional industrial robots that have to operate in a real or virtual safety cell, these cobots work safely next to humans on production lines and do not require specialist programming. Made by rethinkrobotics they dramatically increase line throughput and efficiency.

Thanks to enabling technologies such as artificial intelligence, vision and grasping robots are capable of doing more than ever before. And where logistics was once strictly off limits, it is now becoming a happy hunting ground to all kinds of intelligent automated technologies that will hopefully make it more efficient than was ever thought possible.

Charles Brewer is CEO for DHL eCommerce. This article was originally published on DHL’s What’s Brewing: The future of e-commerce blog.