Tell us a little about your background and how you got into the logistics industry.
I have an engineering background and started my career in transport planning before taking up my first logistics role 16 years ago. In that time, I have worked in a variety of roles spanning different parts of logistics, including operations, IT and sales. Of all the areas I have worked in, packaging and production logistics is easily the most interesting – it is really varied and fast moving with a unique focus on innovation.
Most people know of DHL as a shipping company. How would you define your organization and your role within DHL Supply Chain?
DHL is part of the Deutsche Post DHL Group, the world’s leading mail and logistics group. Within this sits DHL Express, DHL Global Forwarding and DHL Supply Chain, who collectively employ 350,000 people in more than 220 countries around the world. Across our DHL family we service the technology, life sciences and healthcare, energy, automotive and retail sectors. We offer our customers a wide range of logistics services.
My focus within DHL Supply Chain is not on the usual logistics services you might expect. My responsibility is to develop our co-packing, production and packaging services business in the UK and Ireland in which we customise, package and create new products for our customers. We currently work mainly in the food, drink, personal care, home and healthcare sectors and our customers come to DHL because they trust us to provide a flexible, responsive and innovative service.
You’ve deployed a number of collaborative robots in your distribution centers. Can you describe what they’re working on?
Collaborative robots can be trained to be highly effective at performing simple repetitive tasks and Sawyer robots can do this safely alongside human workers. We have deployed Sawyer robots to carry out simple packing tasks, helping us increase our production line capacity and productivity. The tasks can vary from simple pick and place movements of products to repetitive assembly work.
Although it’s early, how are the cobots helping and are there any success stories you can tell us about?
Cobots are already playing a key role in our business. They have enabled us to improve the layout and flow of each packing task, increasing the amount that colleagues can process. In some cases the integration of cobots into our production lines has increased productivity by up to 15%, meaning we can manage more for our customers in a shorter time period.
Nearly all of our customers tell us that cobots are allowing people to move on to more rewarding work, or they are helping fill roles humans aren’t interested in doing. Can you give us an example of this technology solving for a labor shortage or how people have moved on to more fulfilling work at DHL, thanks to robots?
Labour is an industry-wide challenge, particularly around major peaks such as Christmas. We are therefore focused on using cobots to increase capacity, while creating more rewarding opportunities for colleagues who are learning new skills to support the new technology in production or learning how to programme or train the cobot to do a new task. Investing in talent is an essential part of the adoption of robotics and other technology solutions. Robotics is giving us the opportunity to develop colleagues and introduce new technical and engineering roles to support this change. Apprenticeships will play an important part in DHL’s strategy to develop in this area.
What’s been the reaction of the human workforce to the new technology working with and around them?
All of our technology has been carefully deployed to ensure the safety and comfort of our teams. In our co-packing operations, our colleagues are already used to working with machines that automate production, such as multi-head weighers, bowl feeders, baggers and flow wrappers. The new breed of collaborative robots is a continuation of this technology and builds on the skills they have already developed.
From wearables and IoT to drones and autonomous vehicles, what technology in logistics excites you the most?
It is not the most visually exciting, but possibly the biggest impact could come from the ability to print RFID tags within ink. This could give manufacturers and logistics providers new ways to track products without the need for lots of manual checks. It could dramatically change the way that goods are tracked through the supply chain and even into our homes, potentially playing a part in extending the Internet of Things to every individual product.
Lastly, what does the warehouse of the future look like to you five to ten years from now?
Warehouses are already adapting to the growth of e-commerce and demand for deliveries direct to consumers’ homes. As this trend continues, we will simply not be able to operate warehouses in the same way that we do today. We will instead see more flexible automation and robotics, with groups of collaborative robots working together to bring products to picking locations rather than pickers going to fixed storage locations.
In that time-scale it is difficult to know how far 3D printing of products will progress but this technology is set to affect the supply chain at some point. Manufacturing and customisation of products is likely to become a much greater focus for logistics companies as the need to move products starts to reduce.
Next, take a look at Five Disruptive Warehouse Technologies That You Can’t Ignore and The History of Robotics – infographics from DHL. And watch Robots Transform Logistics Industry – a video from Financial Times.
About the Author
I'm Jeff Green, senior content and social media strategist at Rethink Robotics. When I'm not socializing Sawyer and Baxter, our smart, collaborative robots, I'm usually caught up in the home tornado, also known as my three kids. Love them, my wife, old-school Chinese food, movies, and of course game-changing technology.