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Warehouse robotics: is this the moment of truth?

If you’ve been waiting on the sidelines as warehouse robotics and automation have gradually taken hold in the logistics industry ­– well, the time for waiting is over! The next five years will see an explosion of this dynamic trend, with huge implications for ecommerce retailers and beyond.

Warehouse robotics at a tipping point

Albert Einstein said: “Insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results.” But what if you have a repetitive task and need the same results?

Albert Einstein reputedly remarked that “insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results.” We won’t argue with a genius, but what if you have a repetitive task and need the same results? Like order picking with 100% accuracy. Then you’d be far from insane if you tried automation.

Automating simple, repetitive tasks in the warehouse frees up human resources to perform the kinds of complex, thoughtful jobs at which we excel. Warehouse robotics and automation are nothing new, but we have identified the two key trends in warehouse robots: indoor mobile robots and stationary robots. We believe these high-impact trends are poised to disrupt the logistics industry in the next five years amid continued robust consumer demand for ecommerce.

What’s driving this breakthrough? Cutting-edge 3D visualization technology now allows indoor mobile robots to access shelves up to eleven meters high for autonomous inventory storage and retrieval. And state-of-the-art artificial intelligence (AI) fueled by high-quality big data has given stationary robots the ability to learn on the job and fine-tune their tasks. Let’s take a closer look.

Indoors, but not confined

Indoor mobile robots are portable robots that run primarily inside facilities without direct input from human operators. An automated guided vehicle (AGV) or its next-gen kin, autonomous mobile robot (AMR), plots a course in real time and can identify and navigate around obstacles.

AMR sales in the logistics industry have skyrocketed as the technology has evolved beyond two-dimensional lidar to three-dimensional visual autonomy. Their use cases are also expanding, especially for order fulfillment in markets with higher labor costs. One employee with a tablet can oversee an entire fleet of AMRs performing repetitive storage and retrieval processes. Workers otherwise forced to walk up to 15 km a day, often in extreme heat or cold, can undertake more meaningful tasks instead.

Locus Robotics - The solution that thinks outside the cart.

Other use cases include deploying an autonomous security robot (ASR) to prevent inventory theft or an automated storage and retrieval system (ASRS) to improve storage capacity utilization. Once indoor mobile robots can be deployed at scale, they have enormous potential to drive down costs and boost efficiency. The story of Locus Robotics, one of our newest additions, is a great example. The technology must continue to mature, but we’re confident that these robotic recruits and their stationary counterparts will revolutionize warehouse operations in the near term.

The alphabet soup of warehouse robotics


automated guided vehicle

Navigates a defined space such as a warehouse or distribution center guided by magnetic surface tape, wires, lasers, radio waves, etc.


autonomous mobile robot

Uses on-board sensors to navigate without physical markers or guides, can learn and respond to its environment and remember its location.


autonomous security robot

Self-navigates using thermal imaging to enhance safety and security through surveillance and monitoring.


automated storage and retrieval system

Handles, stores, and retrieves inventory in a warehouse autonomously, enabling greater efficiency and storage density.

Stationary, but going places

Stationary robots perform tasks while affixed to a floor, ceiling, or other surfaces – typically in the form of a robotic arm. Their use dates to 1950s-era manufacturing, but modern AI has opened up many new options for boosting efficiency and reducing errors through warehouse automation, including shipment sorting, picking/placing, and palletizing/depalletizing.

Stationary robots come in two types:

  • Industrial robots are best suited to high-speed, high-payload tasks and must be enclosed in a safety cage.
  • Collaborative robots (cobots) share tasks and a workspace with humans.

Dorabot DoraSorter cobot at DHL eCommerce Solutions, Atlanta, Georgia

Many logistics companies now see the potential for big economic gains by deploying stationary robots for repetitive processes, especially amid the recent volatility in demand and shortage of skilled warehouse workers following the pandemic-era “Great Resignation.” Companies across all industries are testing stationary robotic solutions and discovering the most promising use cases for their logistics operations.

We’ve been among the early adopters, exploring possibilities for cobots at DHL sites around the world. Based on this experience and other successful pilots across many industries, and after monitoring this development for some time, we expect to see rapid scaling up of today’s solutions in the next one to three years. The trend should be monitored closely. And because stationary robotics technology is far from reaching its peak, we’re already looking forward to leveraging these repetitive workhorses for more complex applications in the next five years and beyond.

The growing market for robotic arms is expected to reach $74.35 billion by 2029.

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Nice, but a must-have

Robotic arms boost speed and efficiency

Amid the vast, pandemic-fueled growth of the ecommerce sector, automation and warehouse robotics have evolved from a “nice to have” to a “must-have.” Asking warehouse workers to shoulder the additional burden is, well, insane. Even Einstein would have likely said that performing repetitive tasks consistently and with 100% accuracy is not something we humans do well.

Ecommerce retailers and supply chain companies will have to operate at utmost efficiency and invest in the necessary state-of-the-art technologies to seize and maintain a competitive edge for the quickly emerging markets of tomorrow.

The distribution centers of the future will be made up of an effective internet of things (IoT) network that includes both mobile and stationary robots – automated warehouses operated by intelligent robots, driven by meaningful data, and powered by big data analytics.

Leading, but learning along the way

Robotic arm packaging solution, DHL Supply Chain, Korea

At DHL, we’re following our own advice. So while we monitor this and related trends, we’re also trying them out, learning as we go, and integrating what works into our customers’ supply chains.

For example, we ran a successful pilot in Miami, Florida (USA) with Dorabot, an AI-powered robotic solution provider. The company’s high-capacity “DoraSorter” bots, capable of sorting over 1,000 small parcels per hour, were integrated into our hubs and gateways. Following this success, we installed DoraBots in facilities in two Asia Pacific countries, leading to a decline in mis-sorting and removing the need for secondary sorting. We’re currently making a sizeable investment in warehouse robotics solutions in Australia. Meanwhile, we recently surpassed 100 million units picked by LocusBots from Locus Robotics, which we deploy to fulfill orders for a major apparel retailer. Yet another solution we’ve been piloting for a sportswear customer in the US is the container-unloading AI robot "Stretch", the brainchild of Boston Dynamics and capable of moving up to 700 boxes an hour from trucks and containers onto a conveyor belt.

Our embrace of technology at DHL sites worldwide has slashed worker training times by up to 80%, which is particularly helpful amid the current labor crunch. As a result, our teams spend less time walking long distances and pushing heavy carts, focusing instead on value-adding tasks. And they describe how easy it is to adapt to robots – part of what makes this technology a powerful recruiting and retention tool.

  • Greenfield sites work best since the requisite safety infrastructure for human-robot collaboration is easier to accommodate when built in rather than retrofitted.
  • A robust Wi-Fi network is a must to ensure uninterrupted communications with all autonomous equipment.
  • A centralized control tower solution is essential when mixing and matching equipment from various manufacturers.
  • A safety and risk analysis is strongly advised for environments in which humans and robots will work together in tight spaces.
  • Human oversight will remain essential in the foreseeable future.

The genius of warehouse robotics and automation

Use cases, proofs of concept, and pilot projects for indoor mobile robots and stationary robots are quickly taking shape and increasing even as technological and psychological barriers come down. We believe the next five years will see an explosion of this dynamic trend, with huge implications for ecommerce retailers and beyond.

Because development has not reached its peak, the technology will undoubtedly extend to more complex areas of warehouse operations in the near future. Gearing up for next-gen warehouse robotics and automation today will likely prove to be a stroke of genius tomorrow.

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Published: January 2023

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