DHL reports successful tests of robot technology in warehouse

Supply chain organisation DHL has reported a successful pilot test that included the use of robot technology in the order picking process.

The trial took place in a DHL Supply Chain warehouse in Unna, Germany, with robotics working in collaboration with pickers. The robot, which is called EffiBOT and developed by the French start-up Effidence, is effectively a fully automated trolley that follows pickers through the warehouse and takes care of most of the physical work.

Effidence has specifically designed the technology to work safely with and around people, and during the test, two robots supported the pickers by carrying the weight and automatically dropping off the orders once fully loaded.

Michael Artinger, site manager for DHL Supply Chain, and the man responsible for the test, said: "The picking cart follows the picker through the rack system.

"Once it reaches full capacity, the picker simply sends it to the designated drop-off location, while another picking cart joins. This solution makes moving from single to multi-order picking a more efficient and ergonomic process."

DHL said that its warehousing staff appreciated the opportunity to work hands-free and not having to push or pull heavy carts during the picking process. The new robotics technology is viewed as one way of helping retailers keep up with the rising order volumes related to online shopping.

US retailer Hudson's Bay Company recently revealed it is set to open a new state-of-the-art, all-channel fulfilment distribution centre (DC) in Pennsylvania which will use robotic technology reportedly around three-times faster than the typical tech used in eCommerce DCs. The new investment taps into the technology provided by Opex.

The growing number of businesses using robotics and automated services in their supply chains has led many economic commentators to warn of the impact it will have on the jobs market in the coming years. The Bank of England's chief economist, Andy Haldane, warned last year that 15 million jobs UK jobs could be at risk from the growth in technological advancements and robotics capability.

For Kelsie Marian, principal analyst at Gartner, it is a case of retailers needing to deploy staff in different ways. She also suggested that it is likely some in-store labour and tasks will be replaced by automation, predicting that within the next five years half of the top multichannel retailers around the world will leverage smart technologies to transform existing capital-to-labour ratios.

"The role of store associates continues to change as consumerisation together with cloud, mobile, social and big data, give rise to a new era of digital business," explained Marian.

"At the same time, increasing margin pressure is forcing retailers to re-examine existing staffing models to include a substantially reduced number of sales associates, without sacrificing the ability to deliver on customer expectations."

DHL talked up the fact humans and robots were working side by side in its most recent test, as is the case in the new trials the company is undertaking for other logistics services, such as co-packing and mobile piece picking.  

"In the following weeks, DHL will continuously perform tests with different robot types and systems," noted Markus Kückelhaus, VP innovation & trend research at DHL Customer Solutions & Innovation.

"These evaluation results will then determine which technologies will be permanently implemented and position DHL as one of the leaders in an automated future of logistics."

DHL has produced various reports on the wider subject of technology in the supply chain as it looks to help prepare logistics professionals for a new era of advanced robots in logistics. 

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DHL Supply Chain