September 12, 2019

DHL tests emerging tech in Chicago innovation center

DHL tests emerging tech in Chicago innovation center

Partnerships with software, hardware vendors could solve problems in warehouse labor, parcel returns, urban delivery, DHL says.

By Ben Ames

Contract logistics provider DHL Supply Chain opened an innovation center today near Chicago where the company plans to work hand-in-glove with a range of startup firms to apply emerging technologies to the challenges being faced by its clients.

The Bonn, Germany-based company, which is an arm of logistics giant Deutsche Post DHL Group, said the 28,000 square foot facility in Rosemont, Illinois, would help it accelerate the development of new solutions for logistics and supply chain operations.

Through tight integrations with the startup firms providing the technology—as well as customers, employees, and academics—DHL runs pilot tests and provides feedback on the cutting edge equipment, helping to guide the development of future models. That process can help DHL Supply Chain's customers—which include retailers, e-commerce sites, and online marketplaces—to tackle challenges such as warehouse labor shortages, international parcel returns, and last-mile urban delivery, Ken Allen, CEO of DHL E-commerce Solutions, said in a tour of the site.

The innovation center is DHL's third such facility, following sites opened in 2007 in Bonn and in 2015 in Singapore. Opening an innovation center in the Americas is part of DHL's push to invest in new technologies. DHL Supply Chain recently said it would be investing $300 million in 2018 and 2019 to deploy emerging technologies to 350 of its 430 North American facilities and transportation control towers.

That investment is intended to help support the operations of DHL Supply Chain's best known customers, such as Amazon.com Inc., Etsy, Ebay, Rakuten, Alibaba.com, and JD.com, as well as overseas e-commerce concerns that are less familiar to U.S. consumers, such as Zalando, Jumia, Asos, Lazada, Gittigidiyar, and Taobao.com.

Inside the innovation center on Wednesday, DHL technicians experimented with products such as Google Glass smartglasses, Paccar Inc. artificial intelligence (AI)-based pallet dimensioning, and Kinetic wearable devices for monitoring poor posture by warehouse workers.

Robotics platforms in the center included Locus Robotics mobile fulfillment bots, a robotic arm from Universal Robots equipped with a gripper from Covariant, a Vecna Robotics autonomous pallet jack, and an Effidence autonomous cart with 600-pound carrying capacity.

Despite the potential of these emerging technologies, DHL argues that the platforms work best when they are put through strict pilot tests and then matched carefully with each user's needs. "None of these solutions just come into your warehouse and work. It takes an integrator like DHL to produce a return on investment for our customers," said Scott Sureddin, CEO of DHL Supply Chain.

Testing technology in the warehouse

Some of the emerging technologies developed through DHL's partnerships with logistics technology startups were on display during a tour on Wednesday of a nearby DHL facility in North Aurora, Illinois.

DHL Supply Chain operates the distribution center on behalf of its client, Glanbia plc, an Irish retailer of sports nutrition products such as SlimFast and other powders, drinks, and protein bars.

DHL demonstrated five new technologies at the site, including the software platforms MySupplyChain.dhl.com, which offers cloud-based track and trace, business analytics, and customer service, and Smart Operations, which enables "digital twin" modeling capabilities for warehouse processes. Those platforms integrate with the facility's warehouse management system (WMS) software, provided by JDA Software Group Inc.

Inside the warehouse, DHL demonstrated three robotic vehicles, zipping through the aisles of racks that towered five levels high, piled with pallets stacked with cardboard boxes.

The first was a mobile platform featuring a warehouse employee wearing Vuzix Corp. smart glasses for voice-enabled vision picking, while directing center-rider double-pallet jack from Crown Equipment Corp. that was outfitted with Crown's QuickPick remote-operation technology, enabling it to follow him like a loyal dog as he walked the aisles.

The second was an automated warehouse floor scrubber—described as an industrial version of iRobot's Roomba consumer product—but sized up to fit a spacious warehouse. Built by Kitchener, Ontario-based Avidbots Corp., the robotic vacuum scrubs the gleaming, concrete floors of the building to maintain food storage standards and to sustain the flat, smooth floors needed to provide smooth sailing for other autonomous robots.

DHL is now in the second round of working with Avidbots to adapt its robo-vacuums, originally designed for airports and shopping malls, for more rugged warehouse work and may soon increase the test fleet of just 10 vehicles to a far wider rollout across DHL's facilities.

The third vehicle demonstrated in the facility was a vision-guided tugger made by Pittsburgh-based Seegrid Corp. and capable of moving 10,000-pound loads at five mph through the warehouse, reducing travel time requirements for forklift drivers.

"Now with three Innovation Centers around the world, DHL can leverage the power of innovation to serve customers and play an active role in shaping the future of logistics," DHL's Allen said in a release. "DHL is an organization that prioritizes thinking differently to deliver excellence, and I'm proud we now have this platform in the Americas to extend these capabilities to partners in their own backyard."

About the Author

Ben Ames
Senior Editor
Ben Ames has spent 20 years as a journalist since starting out as a daily newspaper reporter in Pennsylvania in 1995. From 1999 forward, he has focused on business and technology reporting for a number of trade journals, beginning when he joined Design News and Modern Materials Handling magazines. Ames is author of the trail guide "Hiking Massachusetts" and is a graduate of the Columbia School of Journalism.

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