DHL Supply Chain Facility Demonstrates How Automation and Humans Can Coexist

A Carhartt facility in Central Ohio offers a peek at a modern omnichannel logistics operation.

Brian Straight

An automated forklift at the Carhartt facility run by DHL Supply Chain in Central Ohio.
DHL Supply Chain offered Supply Chain Management Review a peek at the technologies it's using at a Carhartt facility in Central Ohio, including mobile robots, pallet unloaders, and more.

Nestled close to the geographic center of Ohio sits one of the busiest supply chain regions in North America. Columbus, Ohio, and its surrounding communities are no secret to logistics professionals who use the region to import goods and shuttle them throughout the country.

Ohio boasts the seventh largest economy in the U.S. and a workforce of 1.2 million people. Roughly 151 million people are within a one-day drive of the region, and its Foreign Trade Zone ranked 12th of 200 such U.S. locations in 2021, moving $9.7 billion worth of goods that year.

The Columbus area is home to Rickenbacker International Airport, one of the few airports in the world primarily focused on cargo. Fewer than 300,000 passengers fly out of the airport, primarily via Allegiant Air flights and a stream of private passenger planes. Both Norfolk Southern and CSX operate double-stacked rail services in the region, with direct access to East Coast ports.

“Convenient” is but one word. The Columbus region is roughly 350 miles to Chicago, 560 to Atlanta, and 530 to New York, making it a logical location for distribution.

Ohio’s logistics landscape grows

Logistics businesses are building new warehouses being as fast as they can bring materials for them into the region. One Columbus, which is helping to bring industry into an 11-county region around Columbus, said it ranks in the top 10 regions in the country almost annually. In 2022, there were 479 projects worth at least $1 million—creating least 20 jobs or adding 20,000 sq. ft. of new floor area each—in the area, third in the country.

Also last year, Intel announced that it would build a $20 billion semiconductor plant in the region, creating 10,000 direct and construction jobs. The impact is expected to go far beyond that, though, as many smaller suppliers are expected to take up residence in the region.

Supply Chain Management Review (a sibling site to Robotics 24/7) recently visited Central Ohio, visiting Rickenbacker and a Carhartt facility operated by DHL Supply Chain facility in nearby Canal Winchester. The tour for select media and investors showcased some of the technologies that DHL Supply Chain is installing to improve the efficiency of the Carhartt facility, and its global facilities overall.

The facility opened in May 2021, the first of five warehouses DHL Supply Chain will ultimately operate on behalf of Carhartt. The warehouse is an example of what facilities will look like moving forward: automation supporting humans and designed to address omnichannel expectations.

Omnichannel is now a must

“By now, almost every customer needs an e-commerce channel next to their other channels,” explained Oscar deBok, CEO of DHL Supply Chain. “Every channel has different [needs], so it is more difficult” than it appears to combine all channels in a single facility.

DHL, with a 6.8% market share in the global contract logistics market, expects to spend some $500 million in capital this year on its operations, much of that in adding automation to its facilities.

The company has adopted a philosophy of collaboration between automation and humans because the combination offers more flexibility and the ability to scale, noted Markus Voss, CIO of DHL.

“[The system] needs to be suited to the specific customer,” he said, adding that DHL currently has more than 5,000 live projects.

Automation improves productivity by 70%

DHL research has found that 21% of employee hours are spent picking, with 10% focused on loading and unloading. To help make these jobs easier and more efficient to meet modern e-commerce demands, the company is focusing on deploying technology.

For instance, Voss said that 10% of all picks are now completed with “assistive picking robots.” The use of about 4,000 autonomous mobile robots (AMRs) from Locus Robotics has led to a 70% increase in employee productivity and an 80% decrease in training time.

DHL displayed several additional technologies in Canal Winchester, including autonomous forklifts from Crown Equipment that are used to unload trailers (see video above). They also included an autonomous pallet unloader from Fox Robotics and Boston Dynamics’ Stretch robot, which is capable of lifting individual boxes from a trailer and placing them on a conveyor belt (see video below).

But workers should not be afraid of being replaced by robots, according to Kraig Forman, president of e-commerce at DHL. He said the Carhartt facility employs 380 people who work alongside the robots. The use of data is also helping make the facility more efficient, with the use of warehouse analytics resulting in a 30% increase in pick productivity.

The region is also serving as a proving ground for DHL, noted Sally Miller, CIO of North America and digital transformation officer at the company.

“We are the incubator for the division globally, and a lot of that is because the vendors—many of which are startup companies—are based here. We’re able to [easily] build these integrations into our core technologies,” she said.

Canal Winchester is not quite the warehouse of the future, as there are fully automated facilities from the likes of, but it is a glimpse of the future. And it is taking place along one of the main arteries in the logistics heartbeat of America.

Brian Straight, SCMR

About the author

Brian Straight is the editor in chief of Supply Chain Management Review (a sibling site to Robotics 24/7). He has covered trucking, logistics, and the broader supply chain for more than 15 years. He lives in Connecticut with his wife and two children. Straight can be reached at [email protected], @TruckingTalk, on LinkedIn, or by phone at 774-440-3870.

Boston Dynamics Stretch robot unloading a trailer at a DHL Supply Chain facility in Canal Winchester, Ohio.

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Brian Straight

An automated forklift at the Carhartt facility run by DHL Supply Chain in Central Ohio.

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