What is the future of logistics

The future of logistics

A robot sifts through and sorts the huge warehouses, the autonomously driving delivery van brings the parcels close to the residential areas, drones fly over the dense traffic and finally handle the parcel delivery. Scenarios like these still sound like logistical dreams of the future, but they have long been tested, for example in the Innovation Center of the world's leading logistics company DHL.

The pressure of expectation resting on them does not seem to burden Effi, Fetch and Sawyer. Persistent, experienced and always precise, the new employees do their work in the warehouses of the Deutsche Post DHL Group. No grumbling, no fatigue, no idleness. And although the new colleagues have already made themselves almost indispensable, they are interchangeable: because Effi, Fetch and Sawyer are work robots, learning systems - and nothing less than the future of logistics.

Digitization as the second biggest challenge in logistics

All three are in action in Troisdorf. Eleven years ago, the world's leading logistician Deutsche Post DHL Group set up an Innovation Center in an industrial area, in which the current state of logistics technology is demonstrated. “There are companies that no longer exist because they missed trends and developments,” says Markus Kückelhaus, Vice President Innovation & Trend Research. At the top, the international employees research the latest trends and innovations, at the bottom a view of the trend researchers' pride is exposed: the future that has already begun.

In fact, “soon” isn't that far away anymore. The Deutsche Post DHL Group creates a Logistics Trend Radar every two years. The latest edition has just appeared, with 28 current trends that are classified according to their short-term or long-term introduction and the degree of change for the industry. “The two latest topics are artificial intelligence and blockchain,” said Kückelhaus.

Blockchain

The blockchain technology is behind the cryptocurrency Bitcoin and as such has triggered a real hype in recent years. Because blockchain can not only guarantee the largely smooth operation of a digital monetary system - it can be used in principle to organize every conceivable exchange that can somehow be digitally mapped, which is why it is also interesting for logistics. During transport, for example, it could simplify communication in the complicated trade and supply chain, replace the static waybill or automate transactions. To put it simply, the blockchain is a distributed and encrypted database, with every user of the network having a complete copy. In addition, it is forgery-proof because each individual (data) block is first registered and checked and then chronologically appended to the chain and saved without it being able to be changed and thus manipulated afterwards.

Competitions for specific solutions

Both the Trend Radar and the showroom in Troisdorf clearly show that all logistical levers are being turned along the entire supply chain, down to the last mile, as the logisticians call it. And that with a considerable number of partners. “We don't develop any technology ourselves,” says spokeswoman Sabine Hartmann right at the start, when she points to a wall with numerous company logos. It has been expanded and redesigned several times in recent years. In addition to established names such as Bosch, Samsung, Daimler or the Fraunhofer Institute, digital start-ups have increasingly emerged in recent years that have excelled with very specific solutions in robotics and artificial intelligence. To this end, the company regularly invites you to take part in competitions in its Innovation Center. As with the television program “Die Höhle der Löwen”, the start-ups have to present a jury with specific proposals for solutions to clearly defined problems. The entrepreneur Frank Thelen is part of the critical pack, just as he was with the television program.

"Visually works better than linguistically"

In Troisdorf you can admire some of the demonstration objects that have emerged from this - such as Effi, Fetch and Sawyer. The self-driving Effidence truck is a loyal companion for warehouse workers, follows them through the aisles and literally does the work for them. The driverless forklift system Fetch can cover 32 kilometers a day even more autonomously and transport up to 1,500 kilograms. In the meantime, the system is constantly learning new things, finding the shortest, fastest routes, recognizing obstacles and then jerking independently through the aisles of the huge warehouse at two meters per second. And the collaborative robot Sawyer can carry out the same precise movements with its gripper arm for hours. All three are already in use in the logistics centers, for example in Beringe in the Netherlands.

In addition, there are data glasses or order picking robots that help to quickly record stocks. "Visual work instructions work better than linguistic ones," admits Kückelhaus, because Pepper is also in the Innovation Center. It shows the sometimes playful character of the research and how far many changes are from implementation in a way that is suitable for the market. The humanoid robot is friendly, but still idiosyncratic, a nice gimmick, but not really useful as a replacement for a service person who answers customer questions in post offices, for example. In its current state, Pepper, conceived as an informative and communicative “robot companion”, would probably drive those waiting to despair - or at least entertain them if he doesn't understand them, ignores them or suddenly does things that he shouldn't do.

Failure is also part of trend research

Other tests were even ended without finding their way into everyday life. Deutsche Post DHL has stopped working with 3-D printers as well as the notorious home drone deliveries. "There are definitely still fears and skepticism among customers," admits Sabine Hartmann. But it is precisely for such results that the Innovation Center was set up. The competition also looks very closely at which technical developments can improve the work. Hermes tested delivery robots from the European technology start-up Starship Technologies in Hamburg and London, which collected returns and parcels on a test basis in a freely selectable 30-minute time window.

And because online retailers like Amazon or Alibaba have themselves become gigantic logistics providers, the pressure is increasing. “There always has to be something going on, otherwise it will become a museum,” says Kückelhaus about the Innovation Center, which was overhauled three years ago and has just been refurbished. Since 2015 there has been an Innovation Center in Singapore for the Asian market, and another one in Chicago for the North American market is to follow in 2019.

The last mile is the hardest

"We could do so much more," says Kückelhaus and addresses the strict restrictions, such as the data protection regulations in Germany, which is why personal data cannot and may not be collected. “This is counted as monitoring”, even if it would help in the analysis to understand the distances covered, including speeds, but also fatigue and overload of employees. It is less about control than about simplifying and facilitating the work (and making it less dangerous), said Kückelhaus.

That's why you have to concentrate on the robots. “We're quite a long way in the warehouse,” says Kückelhaus. Because there you experiment and research in your own closed space. “It is always difficult where many other parties and organizations are involved; for example on the open road and in public spaces. "

What does the future hold?

In the Innovation Center there is a Vision Street with nicely animated visions of the future. One draws a dematerialized transport for the year 2050. Products or individual parts are then sent home and printed out at home, a second scenario envisages transport via newly emerging routes, such as the north-west route, which is created by the melting of the ice in the Arctic Ocean (and is actually already in use) and a third regionalization, according to which (anyway globalized standard) products are no longer manufactured and shipped worldwide, but only locally. The visionary scenarios are based on a study that is just five years old - and some of them have already been overtaken by the present.

Conclusion: Digitization determines the development of logistics. So far, sustainable technologies have been used primarily in the logisticians' warehouses and not on the almost unpredictable “last mile” in public space: however, topics such as automation, robotics and artificial intelligence as well as aids such as data glasses and drones are also increasingly intended to influence direct transport. The market leader Deutsche Post DHL, in particular, focuses on the topic of innovation with its biennial trend reports and its own Innovation Center.

Text: Marten Hahn
Photos: Deutsche Post DHL Group