DHL: enhancing its human workforce with robotics and RPA

By Leah Netabai

Following a visit to DHL’s innovation center in Troisdorf, Germany, Business Chief takes a look at some of the robotics DHL is utilising to enhance its workforce.

When it comes to DHL’s logistics operations, Oscar de Bok, CEO of DHL Supply Chain, highlights the need for flexible solutions as supply chains become increasingly complex. De Bok says that it is imperative that a large global company such as DHL has a strategy that utilises digitalisation and collaborative robotics to enhance value and ensure its workforce is unified and connected. “The future is exciting. The future is about innovation and making sure we continuously improve,” says de Bok.

DHL has recently come to the end of its 2020 strategy and is now driving towards 2025, focusing on ‘delivering excellence in a digital world’. Between now and 2025, the company plans to invest US$2.2bn into digitalisation and robotics. 

Robotics and RPA innovations at DHL

“Digital culture is something we constantly enforce within DHL Supply Chain,” says Markus Voss, CIO and COO of DHL Supply Chain. He emphasises that the company has made great efforts to ensure its employees grow alongside its innovations, fostering a culture of working collaboratively with robotics and robotic process automation (RPA) as opposed to being replaced by it. “To date, I have not seen a single site where we have introduced technology and had job losses. In fact, it is quite the contrary: workers are usually more satisfied and we attract more people,” says Voss.

Cleaning robots - Neo

“Don’t start with the most complicated,” says Markus Kückelhaus, VP of Innovation and Trend Research at DHL. “Start with something easy, cleaning robots are not the most complex solution, but a good solution that we can roll out today. Statistics show that the most used robotic solution is cleaning robots for private homes, so why don’t we industrialise it?” 

DHL has currently deployed its Neo cleaning robots - developed by Avidbots - to multiple standard warehouses around the world where the environment is right for them. “Typically, in a warehouse a person is driving through to clean it overnight and it is a tedious job. We say this is something a person doesn’t need to do, we can use cleaning robots instead,” says Kückelhaus.

‘Follow me’ robots

“A simple pluck and play solution,” notes Kückelhaus. This robotic solution, designed by DHL’s partner Effidence, automates the simple trolley design, following an associate to help transport items across long distances. “Once full, you can simply press a button and it will automatically go to the unloading area, detecting any obstacles on its way, while another one is sent to replace it,” explains Kückelhaus. However, Kückelhaus does note that the disadvantage of these robots is that they cannot integrate with a company’s warehouse management system.


Aisle picking robots - Locus

Similar to the ‘follow me’ robot, the aisle picking robot, developed by Locus Robotics, helps associates to pick items. However, this one differs from the ‘follow me’ robot due to it ability to integrate with warehouse management systems. This robot moves independently around the warehouse to an aisle where items need to be picked and waits for an associate. Once the item has been picked and scanned, it takes off by itself again to cover the long distances instead of the associate. “Where we have deployed these robots we have seen an increase in efficiency of 200%,” says Kückelhaus.

Robotic arms - Sawyer 

Designed as a collaborative tool to reduce strainful and repetitive tasks. Sawyer is a pluck and play robotic arm that doesn’t need to be caged thanks to its pressure sensors which detect when someone comes close to it. “This is a safe robot certified to work jointly with people,” says Kückelhaus. In addition, the robot is on wheels so it can be easily moved to wherever it is needed. Currently, 19 of DHL’s sites in the UK are using co-packing. 

The benefits and challenges of robotics and RPA 

While DHL sees many benefits from robotics and RPA, such as standardisation of its processes, increased productivity, increased efficiency and better use of employee talent by reducing time spent on repetitive tasks, it doesn’t shy away from the fact that innovation comes with challenges too. 

When it comes to robotics, particularly picking robots, Kückelhaus explains that item complexity and speed is still a negative factor for robots that can pick items. When conducting tests, the robots could only pick limited shapes and sizes in addition to picking 73% less per hour than human associates. “Technology combined with people is the best combination,” he notes.

Other challenges include change management. “We have taken a lot of effort to explain and develop people alongside our innovations,” says Voss. “It’s all about talking. We have many forums where there is an open, constructive and positive dialogue around the topic of technology. In addition, we are doing many things in terms of educating people, our certified programme drives the understanding of the necessity of innovation and the opportunities that it brings. Finally, our startup lab is a great vehicle for getting engagement from our workforce. Through the lab, employees can pitch ideas to the board to be funded and developed in a safe environment to drive it to the next phase,” he adds. 

Low labour costs in developing markets is another challenge that Voss highlights. “If you have developing markets with relatively low labour costs, then introducing highly sophisticated robotics is going to come with a long payback. We have had these challenges in Latin America and parts of Asia where high impact robotic solutions are not yet ready to be rolled out. Sometimes, we still have to deploy these solutions due to scarcity of labour being so heavy that we have to implement it regardless of a longer payback.” However, Voss does note that, with the cost of robotics reducing with every new generation, regional deployment will soon no longer be a challenge. 

Finally, Voss highlights the importance of integration. “Although this is not a problem, it has to be acknowledged that just putting in a robot is not going to be the optimal fix for a particular problem,” he explains that the connection between robotics and a business’s warehouse management system needs to be fully integrated, something which Voss is currently putting a lot of work into to have an adaptable and standardised interface.

For more information on business topics in the Middle East and Africa, please take a look at the latest edition of Business Chief MEA.

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