(We are) the robots

Deutsche Post DHL study: Collaborative robots indispensible in the future of logistics “We are the robots, we are programmed to do everything you want us to do”. 38 years ago the song by the german electronic music band Kraftwerk made  history. Machines that do the work of people is one of mankind’s oldest dreams. While in industrial production, for example in the automotive and engineering industries, robots are already part of the standard, the logistics industry still has some catching up to do. Recent studies show that the processes at 80 percent of all logistics locations are still carried out manually. That will soon change, according to the forecast of the trend report “Robotics in Logistics” published by Deutsche Post DHL. Accordingly, collaborative robots will change supply chains fundamentally. It is thus that logistics robots will soon be able to provide support in picking and packaging as well as in the transport of goods. “Robots are used in many industries, but have not yet had a proper impact on logistics due to the complexity of the processes,” says Matthias Heutger, Senior Vice President Strategy, Marketing & Innovation, DHL Customer Solutions & Innovation. “The regulation of an infinite number of product and process combinations in cooperation with people in enclosed spaces is a challenge for robots. Recently, however, the technology is catching up, as flexible, cost-effective and collaborative robots are increasingly in demand“. Drivers of development are the growing e-commerce sector on the one hand, and the lack of skilled workers and the need to consolidate on the other. Contrary to the situation in retail stores or in industrial production, goods logistics requires machines that work in a highly individual manner. A warehouse worker covers a distance of between 7 and 15 miles per shift in order to put together the ordered items. A robot that can replace such a worker must be able to move independently and to grab and see things. The DHL study presents realistic scenarios that demonstrate how intelligent robots are able to optimize supply chains or even the sorting process. They cover the entire supply chain from self-propelled trucks and mobile robots that unload the goods to drones and exoskeleton suits. Equipped with such suits, people can easily carry heavy loads of up to 80 kilograms.

[Photo: DHL]
[Photo: DHL]

Accordingly, the investment in the development of robots is increasing everywhere: Within the framework of the SPARC programme from the European Commission, the EU is investing around EUR 700 million in robotic research, while China and Russia are planning to invest USD 200 million in a joint research centre. A consortium of 180 European companies plans to collect EUR 2.1 billion for research funding over the next four years.
The trend report “Robotics in Logistics” highlights current developments in robot technology from the perspective of leading experts from academia and industry, and is part of the overarching “Logistics Trend Radar” with which DHL is identifying relevant trends and technologies for the logistics industry.

Author: Anne Goergen

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