Robots are doubling productivity in picking medical devices at a Memphis facility of DHL Supply Chain, which is looking to significantly expand its use of robotics and other leading-edge technology solutions in e-commerce fulfillment.
“These LocusBots have quite a good sweet spot,” said Adrian Kumar, DHL Supply Chain’s vice president of solutions design for North America, standing next to one of the high-tech units on the exhibit floor at the Retail Industry Leaders Association’s 2018 Retail Supply Chain Conference, held Feb. 25-28 in Phoenix, with DHL Supply Chain as title sponsor. “We see them suiting e-commerce and fashion.”
Dozens of the 100-pound mobile robots, made by Wilmington, Massachusetts-based Locus Robotics, currently are being deployed by DHL Supply Chain at the Memphis facility to help speed surgical implants, prep materials and related components to doctors throughout the nation.
Orders that are placed in the evening are swiftly picked by the robots and the needed items are then put on FedEx planes and rushed to hospitals via next-day air, Kumar said, noting that a doubling of productivity already has been realized since the initiative began as a pilot project in mid-2017. He said he believes productivity gains as high as 2 1/2 times simply human capabilities are achievable with the units.
Not only is DHL Supply Chain anticipating increasing the presence of LocusBots at the Memphis installation from the current 36-unit contingent but is also looking to bring the high-tech piece-pickers to additional facilities where expeditious fulfillment of small orders that aren’t overly cube-intensive is required. And other robotic solutions are being explored for use in picking larger items.
Because the robots are not bolted to the ground and are easily leased, it is relatively unproblematic to put more to use, Kumar said, commenting, “We can always just lease more robots.”
Kumar, who is based at DHL Supply Chain’s North American headquarters in Westerville, Ohio, said robots and other technological innovations will play an increasing role as shorter lead times of a day or less are demanded for small orders while the number of stock-keeping units, or SKUs, keeps growing.
“Technology is becoming extremely important because customer profiles are changing,” he said. “Software technology allows speed to work on the floor, and hardware solutions like Locus allow faster picking. What we look for is the smart combination of hardware and software.”
Other innovations demonstrated by DHL Supply Chain at its RILA event booth included another pick-assist device known as vision picking, an augmented reality tool using “smart glasses” to optimize warehouse processes. That technology has been piloted by the company in picking fashion items at a facility in Columbus, Ohio.
Also being utilized by DHL Supply Chain is an optimization science tool called Box It Up, which saves shipping costs by finding the best carton size for items – that being the size that minimizes the amount of empty space – and an algorithm-based technology called Group Smart that reduces pick paths through what Kumar described as “intelligent clustering of orders.”