The warehouse of the future: mobile-piece picking robots becoming a reality

By Matthias Heutger, Senior Vice President Strategy, Marketing and Innovation at DHL
“Slow and steady” perhaps best defined the development of commercial robotics in the past. The anticipation for advancements has been building for m...

“Slow and steady” perhaps best defined the development of commercial robotics in the past. The anticipation for advancements has been building for many years. But the progress is clear, and many industries are now seeing the widespread benefits of implementing such tools. While it took decades to implement 1.2 million robots, it will only take us around 3 more years to reach 2.6 million.

Yet still, when talking logistics, there are many routine challenges faced within the warehouse environment that can be transformed by breakthroughs in robotics. Demands for improved productivity and operational efficiency along the supply chain continue to increase, whilst the global availability of qualified staff is decreasing. Therefore, the push for innovation remains – it is not a matter of ‘if’ but rather ‘when’.

At DHL, we estimate that the implementation of robotics will be the norm in the logistics industry within less than five years. The race is therefore very much on to develop the required robotic solutions. As technology continues to evolve, making the previously impossible possible, designers and innovators are constantly being presented with new ways to activate change and optimize processes.

Mobile piece-picking robots are becoming a reality

Until very recently, mobile piece-picking robots were considered a too complex, and therefore unrealistic, solution to the varying demands of the average distribution center. Now the list of limitations is quickly shrinking, as the technology becomes available to make the concept increasingly viable. The prospect of robots working alongside human workers is now very much a reality, with the scope for collaboration able to optimize warehouse processes.

Typical warehouse employees are required to exert significant physical efforts in their roles. Mobile piece-picking robots are capable of supporting workers, by removing the need for labor to be devoted to repetitive and dangerous tasks. Instead allowing for more human time to then be spent on more complex and rewarding work such as maintaining and training robots, benefitting employees and employers alike.

To help achieve this, and further realize the operational benefits of robotic collaboration along the supply chain, DHL is working alongside tech specialists, such as Fetch Robotics, to explore the multiple applications of robotics in logistics. DHL is committed to prove to the industry that robots are here to work with humans, not against them – offering greater efficiencies to organizations and their staff.

Robotics Challenge: we invite you to be a part of the future warehouse

The DHL Robotics Challenge has been launched to reward new and emerging inventive talent, and to popularize robotics amongst start-ups, researchers and university students.

This year’s challenge, in partnership with Dell EMC, focuses on mobile piece-picking robotics, inviting all inventors, visionaries and forward thinkers to develop a prototype that can be used in a typical warehouse environment. Capable of autonomous mobility at walking speed, the prototypes will be judged on their originality, functionality, perceived commercial feasibility, aesthetics and potential to solve current warehousing challenges.

Three finalists will then be selected by an expert judging panel, and flown to the DHL Innovation Centre in Troisdorf, Germany, where they will be presenting their prototypes at the DHL Innovation Day on 7th December 2017. Audience at the event, consisting of over 180 senior supply chain professionals, will be live-voting for the winner, who will be awarded €15,000 for first place. The competition will also engage in a joint proof-of-concept with DHL and Dell EMC.


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