The unloading of boxes from trailers and containers is physically demanding work. DHL Supply Chain yesterday said it is the first company to commercially apply Boston Dynamics' Stretch robot to unloading cartons from trucks.
“Through our accelerated digitization strategy, we continue to innovate and find creative solutions for today’s supply chain challenges,” stated Sally Miller, CIO of DHL Supply Chain North America. “We are also excited to be able to offer yet another solution to our customers that allows for flexibility in scaling up or down as operational needs change.”
DHL is part of Bonn, Germany-based Deutsche Post DHL Group, which claimed it is largest logistics company in the world, with 380,000 employees and offices in over 220 countries and territories. The successful deployment of Stretch came one year after DHL Supply Chain invested $15 million in robots from Boston Dynamics.
Boston Dynamics addresses safety, labor with Stretch
By automating the unloading of boxes with Stretch, DHL Supply Chain said it can address safety concerns as well as ongoing labor shortages. The robot allows businesses to redirect existing labor to other value-added tasks, resulting in increased efficiencies across the warehouse, said the Westerville, Ohio-based company.
Stretch's lightweight arm is custom-designed and has seven degrees of freedom. This grants it the length and flexibility to reach cases throughout a trailer or shipping container, according to Waltham, Mass.-based Boston Dynamics.
Advanced sensing and controls enable the robot to handle a variety of package types and sizes while maximizing pick rates, the company explained. Boston Dynamics said its computer vision technology enables Stretch to identify boxes without any pre-programming.
Stretch is capable of working autonomously through complex situations like mixed stacking configurations and recovering fallen boxes, it added.
“DHL started its relationship with Boston Dynamics four years ago as we looked at developing next-generation robotics,” said Brian Gaunt, senior director of accelerated digitalization at DHL. “This is a real change in the industry.”
DHL shares peek at innovation playbook
“We look for robots that solve real problems applicable to some, if not all, of our 500 sites in North America,” Gaunt told Robotics 24/7 at Manifest 2023 in Las Vegas. “We're looking for the next best-of-breed technology and partner with companies of all sizes.”
DHL has a very structured process or playbook for innovation, he noted. “We look at how startups creatively solve a problem, if the robot's functionality is close, and a laundry list of other things, such as safety, reliability, and service,” said Gaunt.
“We also look at how a robot collaborates with associates, and how it integrates with our systems,” he said. “We're open to changing our processes and not just dropping automation into Steps 3 to 7 of a workflow and expecting it to work.”
“I like trailer unloading because it doesn't require WMS [warehouse management system] integration or mapping the facility,” commented Gaunt. “It's in a more constrained environment and easier to adopt on the fly.”
“We work closely with suppliers on a lot of key features, and we're willing to look further ahead if it provides long-term benefits, such as strategic ESG [environmental, social, and governance] objectives,” he added.
DHL has worked with multiple robotics developers on supply chain automation. Source: DHL
DHL Supply Chain to deploy more robots
In the DHL application, Stretch robots take packages from the back of trailers and place them on a flexible conveyor.
The speed at which the robot can unload cases varies by product. “However, in all tested environments, the case-unload speed exceeded the manual approach, driving significant advantages in efficiency and productivity,” reported DHL.
DHL Supply Chain and Boston Dynamics said they plan to use the insights and experience gained from this partnership to deploy more innovative technologies. The partners plan to enhance Stretch's key performance and consistency metrics.
They are also aiming to decrease the number of human interventions required while improving the robot’s automated recovery process for fallen boxes. In addition, the companies said they want to gradually scale the robot for additional warehouse tasks.
“The DHL Supply Chain team has been instrumental in helping us understand the complex demands of the supply chain environment,” said Kevin Blankespoor, senior vice president and general manager of warehouse robotics at Boston Dynamics. “They provided valuable feedback and insights throughout our development and testing process, and thanks to that close collaboration, Stretch is now deployed and beginning to increase inbound throughput.”
DHL said it plans to deploy Stretch robots across multiple warehouses in the coming year.
DHL Supply Chain is deploying Stretch to automate trailer unloading and support warehouse associates.
About the Author
Eugene DemaitreEugene Demaitre is editorial director of Robotics 24/7. Prior to joining Peerless Media, he was a senior editor at Robotics Business Review and The Robot Report. Demaitre has also worked for BNA (now part of Bloomberg), Computerworld, and TechTarget. He has participated in numerous robotics-related webinars, podcasts, and events worldwide.
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DHL Supply Chain
DHL has begun its first commercial deployment of Boston Dynamics' Stretch.
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