“The times are changing now. However, we won’t be moving to a fully automated sector all at once between now and three years from now; it will happen gradually, step by step. The first robots will mainly support people in their tasks.”
11 to 24 kilometres
The advantages of robots are evident. They eliminate tasks that are dangerous, don’t mind doing work that is dull or repetitive, and are more efficient, more accurate and stronger than people could ever be. Kückelhaus: “It has been calculated that warehouse workers walk about 11 to 24 kms per shift. If robots could bring the products to them, they wouldn’t need to walk that much themselves.”
Today, 80 per cent of the warehouses in the world are still mainly operated by people. DHL is a front runner in making them more automated. Kückelhaus: “15 per cent of our warehouses are being operated mechanically.”
Having a robot move parcels around and unload vessels, how hard can it be? “Quite hard,” Kückelhaus says. “The product is the tricky factor here: cargo comes in various sizes and weights. People are good at distinguishing between types of cargo, and deciding how much force is needed to lift a parcel. But so far, it has been hard to teach a computer to do this. Car manufacturers for instance, use robots for repetitive tasks such as tightening a screw. But in logistics it differs per parcel.” For logistics purposes, you could design a specific robot for a specific client who always ships a specific parcel, but if the contract with this client is terminated you would have a useless robot on your hands.
And there are more challenges to tackle before the robot can become a success in logistics. Kückelhaus: “Logistics involves transport: they have to be able to move. To do this, they have to understand what kind of environment they are operating in, so that for instance they do not bump into everything. Fortunately, the number of innovations in the field of camera technology and sensors is increasing, so that robots are learning to identify what sort of product is in front of them.”