Digitalization

We, Robot: How humans and AI are working together in logistics

In today’s digital world, people rarely go it alone. Artificial intelligence is all around us, and it’s bringing efficiency, speed, and relief to industries rife with challenges. If it wasn’t clear before, it surely is by now: The future of AI in logistics is neither fully automated nor fully human – it’s both. 

AI in logistics: lending a helping … arm

The future of labor is neither fully automated nor fully human - it's both.

Camera, charger, case. Box. Camera, charger, case. Box. Camera, charger, case... and so on, again and again. Of the many jobs done in warehouses, some can be highly repetitive. Take kitting, which involves bundling individual items together into boxes for sale as a single unit. Manufacturers might need to process thousands of them for special offers, for example, ahead of the holidays. Hundreds of hours of labor go into bundling those kits.

But these days, more and more tasks like this are being doled out to indispensable, artificially intelligent, one-armed workers: robots. It’s the beginning of the future of AI in logistics.

To do the kitting job, a robot arm has been ‘taught’ to combine exactly these items – camera, charger, case – in a box, nothing more, nothing less, nothing different. A human keeps an eye on this robot, ensuring it doesn’t run out of supplies and troubleshooting any problems that may crop up. But ultimately, that person, or people, are spared the tedium of assembling thousands of kits.

Robotic assistance or artificial intelligence?

This common shop floor work in logistics and supply chains isn’t the usual role associated with robots. For as long as they’ve existed in popular culture, robots have had a dual image: self-learning avatars whose intelligence is a threat to our society (and our jobs) or mechanical butlers programmed to bring us bonbons in bed.

Today, robots range from massive hydraulic arms that lift entire trucks to microscopic nanorobots that navigate through blood vessels. There are ‘soft robots’ that mimic body parts, bomb-disposal robots that meet danger head on, and R2D2-like security robots that roam public spaces, keeping a 1984-ish eye out for our safety. And they’re in use everywhere, from the military to manufacturing, agriculture to healthcare, and homes to warehouses. As their role in society grows, the world is changing in response.

Delegating the dirty work

The fear that robots will somehow replace humans is misplaced. It’s not about taking peoples' jobs, but about taking over certain activities. In the field of industrial robotics, experts focus on what they call the “Four Ds” – Dirty, Dull, Distant, and Dangerous. These are the types of work where robots and artificial intelligence can best aid humans.

When considering where to use artificial intelligence in logistics and supply chains, “dull” and “distant” are the most relevant. “Dull” refers to the highly repetitive, predictable tasks that occur in a structured environment. Work that requires judgment, flexibility, and differentiation can be done best – and only – by people. Say you need to fill thousands of Advent calendars with chocolates? Robot. But if you want to set up a staging area in the morning, troubleshoot a piece of broken equipment at noon, and prepare for tonight’s arrivals in the afternoon? Human, human, human.

Of brains and brawn – humans collaborating with AI in logistics

But what about tasks that are in the middle – repetitive enough but not fully structured or predictable? This is where ‘collaborative’ robots, or cobots, come into the picture. The burly robot does the grunt work while the brainy human oversees the process. AI-powered cobots optimize dull or distant tasks with the help of people. For example, container-unloading robots can help empty a shipping container at the warehouse dock and transfer the items to a conveyor belt. Or stack loose boxes onto pallets. But human assistance is needed to catch the exceptions: cartons that shifted out of place, items that got wet, and unusual shapes and sizes.

Robots only

Robots onlyHighly predictable, structured environment

People only

Intelligence, versality, adapting fast to change

Cobots

Processes that can be partly mechanized but need oversight from humans

Another example of a cobot would be a robotic arm that helps with the backbreaking job of stacking heavy prosecco crates on pallets for a supermarket customer. The robot does the heavy lifting while an employee manages the process, ensuring that everything is placed correctly on the conveyor belt and dealing with exceptions as they arise.

In express logistics, AI-powered sorting robots are becoming a game-changer, increasing sorting capacity by some 40% or more. For example, we’ve partnered with Dorabot, an AI-powered robotic solution provider, to integrate “DHLBots” into our hubs and gateways. After a successful pilot project in Miami, Florida (USA), we’re equipping facilities in two Asia Pacific countries with DHLBots. Capable of sorting over 1,000 small parcels per hour with 99% accuracy, DHLBots reduce missorting, removing the need for secondary sorting. This technology comes at a critical time, given the consistent growth in shipment volume across the region. In 2020, DHL Express recorded a 17.3% year-on-year increase in volume during the peak months of November and December.

40%

Increase in sorting capacity

1,000

Parcels sorted per hour

99%

Sorting accuracy

Cobots like these give us a glimpse of the future of human intelligence working alongside artificial intelligence in logistics and supply chains.

Dorabot sorts over 1,000 small parcels per hour

One robotics arm can help sort more than 1,000 pieces per hour.

Accelerated digitalization to leverage AI in logistics now

Market forces are making the move towards robotics and artificial intelligence in warehouses even more urgent. Today’s e-commerce customers are more demanding. More and more, they expect nearly instant delivery and free of charge. The same goes for B2B customers, who increasingly want high-speed, low-cost solutions as well.

That’s why we’re investing heavily in robots to take on warehousing activities from piece picking to pallet moving. At DHL Supply Chain (DSC), we even have an Accelerated Digitalization program to – as the name suggests – speed up the process. Part of our Digital Transformation Office, the program facilitates productivity improvements across operational processes using an array of digital tools, including robots, wearable devices, software bots, and more.

One solution we’ve been piloting for a sportswear customer in the US is the container-unloading robot 'Strech', made by Boston Dynamics. This artificially intelligent box mover can transfer up to 700 pieces an hour onto a conveyor belt. While we might marvel at the robot’s fluid movements, the creators at Boston Dynamics know that Stretch’s true strength is in its ability to accurately examine a wall of boxes and know which one to pick up first. Call it artificial intelligence or not, but it doesn’t take a genius to see the benefits of giving the dull, repetitive task of emptying trailer after trailer to an automated worker that doesn’t get tired or worn out. And that’s why, after collaborating over the past few years as the company’s latest robot was being developed and tested, we’re investing in Stretch to further automate our warehousing processes.


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Meet Stretch – the artificially intelligent box mover

This robot can transfer up to 700 pieces an hour onto a conveyor belt.

Automation and artificial intelligence – the next wave of e-commerce efficiency

As we make our warehouses smarter, it’s clear that automation and artificial intelligence in logistics and supply chains are the keys to e-commerce success and sustainability. And that logistics automation for e-commerce fulfillment solutions will usher in the next wave of efficiency.

Here’s an example: Pallet-wrapping machines are a common sight in warehouses. These appliances are typically stationary, and we use forklifts to move pallets stacked with cartons to them. The pallets are wrapped and then carried by forklift to the next staging area. Now, pallet-wrapping robots are speeding up this process. An operator simply pilots a lawnmower-like wrapping robot from pallet to pallet, stopping to wrap each load along the way.

Assisted picking robots (AP robots) will also be part of the next wave of AI in logistics and supply chains that takes e-commerce efficiency to the next level. AP robots are autonomous carts that display images of goods to be picked and calculate optimal navigation routes. They travel the long distances between different parts of a warehouse, collecting items from human employees, who remain in one area and do the differentiated work of piece picking. The robots then autonomously bring their filled order basket to the packing station. There, another person finalizes the shipping process.

We run massive piece-picking operations around the globe, so picking is one of the processes where we see the most opportunity to pair artificial and human intelligence. So far, our AP robots have increased productivity between 30% and 180%. Recently, we recruited 2,000 AP robots from Locus Robotics for use in warehouses around the world through the end of 2022.

The extreme increase in e-commerce resulting from the Covid-19 pandemic has only made the situation more critical. There is a shortage of human workers, and the trend is likely to continue. Robots are a crucial line of defense here, helping to fill staffing gaps and smooth out the highs and lows in demand. Increasingly, even our customers see the advantages of robots for managing sudden spikes in demand.

The future of logistics belongs to us both

The logistics industry finds itself in a disruptive time – and we must stay ahead of the curve. Losing talent will come at a high cost, which means it’s vital to retrain people whose tasks are outsourced to robots to fill other jobs in logistics – like truck driving, which is facing a critical shortage worldwide. Upskilling employees to oversee robots is also crucial. For example, at our warehouses, we’re training workers to be autonomous forklift operators who supervise these robots, ensuring they work efficiently and effectively alongside humans.

The future, it seems, belongs to the ‘bots’ – and to the people who get to work alongside them. AI in logistics is really about human brains meeting robot brawn, producing excellent results: The latest industrial revolution may be a quiet one, but it’s a revolution, nonetheless.

Published: March 2022

DHL Supply Chain

The world’s leading contract logistics provider


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