The logistics industry is on the verge of being revolutionized by advanced robotics. Used for years in manufacturing, industrial robots just have not been smart enough for logistics, with its highly complex orchestration of combinatory tasks required in warehouses and distribution centers. Up to now, most robots were stationary and inflexible, incapable of handling these sorts of jobs. To do these things, robots needed eyes, hands, feet, and yes, even brains. Moreover, they needed to be safer for collaboration with humans. In a nutshell, they needed to be more human-like, which seemed impossible just a few years ago.
All that has changed now. Technology is finally catching up with the demands of our industry and recent advances hold incredible promise for increasing productivity, improving service levels, reducing costs, and enhancing the quality of our working lives.
Baxter, the friendly cobot
One fascinating example is the collaborative robot (cobot) Baxter from Rethink Robotics. Baxter, a first-generation cobot, was designed specifically to work safely around humans. Utilizing the availability of low-cost sensors and camera technology, Baxter has plastic arms that stop automatically when they come into contact with an object; a head that scans its environment and slows down when it nears people; and “eyes” that enable it to identify and pick up objects.
In our U.S. operations, for example, DHL has been partnering with a customer to test Baxter to find out first-hand how robotic innovations will change our day-to-day business. Baxter is easy to program and can carry out commonplace tasks such as stacking boxes on a conveyor belt or assembling two items. Baxter can do even more though. It performs typical co-packing tasks too, such as placing bottles onto trays. While Baxter isn’t yet quick enough to meet all throughput requirements, the next generation of even more precise robots are already hitting the market, as the introduction of Sawyer, now on tour in Germany, demonstrates.
Solutions on the horizon
We can easily infer from Baxter and other nascent robotic technologies that solutions are within reach for the problems vexing our industry, be it navigating the crosscurrents of a declining and aging workforce or meeting the demand for increased labor-intensive “pick-and-pack” work stemming from the rise of e-commerce. Likewise, robotics will help us to close the gap with the availability of skilled workers. Furthermore, they will allow us to quickly scale up customization, making our industry more nimble and poised for long-term success in an unpredictable business world.
A brighter future
This is really great news. And it’s difficult not to be excited about the future of our industry, if you think about what lies ahead. Within a generation, workers in warehouses and distribution centers will work side-by-side with robots that take over the tedious and laborious jobs to free them up to concentrate on more challenging and enriching tasks.
DHL, a logistics innovator
DHL welcomes robotic innovations that have the potential to revolutionize our industry and make it fit for the future. In Germany and now in Singapore, we showcase our dedication to and belief in the future of automation in our Innovation Centers. Our latest Trend Report “Robotics in Logistics” tackles the topic and describes all the latest examples of robotics that will soon be transforming our industry.