DHL Supply Chain, a leader in contract logistics within Deutsche Post DHL Group, announced on Wednesday a framework agreement with Locus Robotics to continue expanding its automation collaboration that began in 2017 as an important piece to DHL’s Accelerated Digitalization Strategy.

Within this extended agreement, DHL plans to add 2,000 robots by 2022, making it Locus Robotics’ largest customer. DHL already has more than 500 assisted picking robots in use today and plans to add 500 more to more than 20 locations by the end of 2021.

In an interview with FreightWaves, Karen Leavitt, the chief marketing officer at Locus Robotics, described the long-standing relationship with DHL and the solutions provided by LocusBots.

“The first warehouse we deployed to was fulfilling medical device orders, including pacemakers and hip replacement joints,” she explained. “As you can imagine, those are mission-critical shipments and they would come through the system in the afternoon and would have to be in the operating room the next morning. These shipments are what DHL would call ‘zero fail’ situations. Our second warehouse came about a year later for a popular global athleisure brand. Now we are supporting various product warehouses including shoes to parts distribution to wine and liquor distribution. It takes different lengths of time and different levels of effort to pick these different types of goods.”

Using artificial intelligence and machine learning, the LocusBots have been able to adapt quickly to new environments, allowing DHL to expand its robot fleet into various types of picking processes when needed. Locus Robotics also works with customers in a Robotics-as-a-Service (RaaS) subscription model, making it easy for customers to add or subtract from their robotic fleet without fear of a large capital investment.

Leavitt explained that these robotic fleets are not just a great tool for picking processes, but enable customers to better manage their returns, an area of retail that has become a headache for warehouses due to changes in e-commerce buying habits during the pandemic.

“During the pandemic, when people could no longer shop in stores, customers began what is called ‘bracketing,’” she explained. “They would order their size, the size above and the size below, try them on at home, and return two-thirds of the order. [Brands] don’t have the luxury of just throwing all that product into a pile and worrying about it later.”

She described how the LocusBots were able to quickly adapt.

“Our robots can also assist with optimizing the returns process, often called ‘putaway,’” Leavitt said. “Historically, putaway was reserved for the graveyard shift but what [our robots] can do is look into the upcoming order pool and start teeing up some of the robots to do putaway while others are picking. They can have the same workers who are picking, alternate to putaway, eliminating the need to have a specialized workforce for these tasks.”

Leavitt explained that DHL has quoted cycle time reductions of 50% since adding the robots to its warehouse operations, but found even more success with employee engagement, generating an 80% reduction in training time. 

She believes that adding these technologies to warehouse operations helps DHL’s and Locus’ customers retain and recruit employees in an industry that has continued to suffer from a labor gap. 

Simple solutions like using workers’ preferred language can make an employee feel valued and more productive.

“We support 21 different languages,” said Leavitt. “When a worker approaches the robot, the robot identifies the employee and automatically changes the language on the screen to the worker’s preferred language. So imagine how not only does that drive down error rates, but it also respects the worker and their skills. It really creates a point of engagement between the worker and the employer to say you matter to us, and the workers feel valued. By having information in the workers’ native language, it makes the pick go so much more smoothly.”

Leavitt explained that Locus has implemented gamification within its robots, enabling them to engage and motivate workers as well.

“When the worker approaches the robot, the robot can tell them whether they are at or above their personal goal today or even if you may be at an all-time high [in regard to productivity],” she said. “If we put you on a leaderboard with all the other workers, you’re in third place for productivity and you just need to pick a little bit faster to move up a position. We can even create teams, which creates a lot of camaraderie in the warehouse.”

Leavitt was proud of the advancements Locus Robotics is making for warehouse management but also employee engagement, and stressed that this kind of technology has proved itself and is not going anywhere anytime soon.

“Robotic process automation is no longer a science experiment,” she said. “This technology is no longer about figuring out what works. The time to consider whether to automate your warehouses has passed. Companies don’t realize that when you deploy a robotic solution in your warehouse, your operation is actually driving the future development and the insights that robotics products can deliver. The product learns from what you’re doing with it, and it actually guides the future development of your warehouse.”

Click here for more articles by Grace Sharkey.

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