By Jared Council
Integrating robots into warehouses is traditionally time-consuming and costly. A unit of global logistics giant Deutsche Post AG and one of its technology suppliers think they might have found a better way.
DHL Supply Chain and Blue Yonder Inc. over the past year have been collaborating on Robotics Hub, a software platform designed to more quickly integrate robotics systems into warehouse operations.
It is one of several efforts in the industry to improve the usefulness of robots in warehouses, where they are increasingly common.
The platform is currently online at one location near Madrid, where it has already reduced integration time for new robot systems by 60%, said Markus Voss, DHL Supply Chain's global chief information officer and chief operating officer.
"We're at the beginning of the journey," Mr. Voss said. "We are implementing it as we speak at two additional sites, and we think it has applicability across all of our sites."
The continuing shift to internet commerce and rolling lockdowns in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic have fueled the need for robotics and automation solutions across a range of businesses. Logistics centers have seen double-digit increases in orders since the outbreak started, and robots are seen as a source of labor that can't be vectors for the virus.
The Deutsche Post unit operates more than 2,000 warehouses on behalf of other companies. About a quarter have physical robots, including item-picking robots and self-driving forklifts for transporting goods.
Integrations can take months, largely because the software that operates them must be manually configured to work with individual warehouse-management software systems, Mr. Voss said. The robotics hub, which comes programmed with the ability to speak to different systems, removes the need for custom software configurations at each warehouse.
The idea for the hub came about during a meeting between officials at DHL and Blue Yonder, driven by DHL needs. Blue Yonder handled software development, while DHL provided information, including warehouse workflows, that helped dictate how the system was designed. Microsoft Corp., which runs the Azure cloud service that hosts the hub, provided software architecture expertise.
Blue Yonder owns the robotics hub product and, for now, DHL is the only subscriber.
The robotics hub went live at its first site in May at a warehouse in Seseña Nuevo, Spain, that DHL runs for IskayPet SL, parent company of Spanish pet-supplies retailers Tiendanimal and Kiwoko.
Pedro Reinaldos, logistics director at IskayPet, said the hub has helped his company manage order growth that has neared 20% annually the past few years.
Mr. Voss said integrating a new robotics fleet at a warehouse can often take more than three months and cost at least $100,000. Much of the time and cost relate to having IT teams from the various stakeholders configuring software.
"Due to the different nature of the operations, you would always need some IT people to do the matching," he said about onboarding new robots. "That is something that we wanted to engineer out of the system: How can we get the whole integration faster so that it's more of a plug and play."
A robotics hub operates as middleware, designed to speak both to the warehouse management system and the fleet management system. It works by standardizing the data and tasks that flow between the two systems, such as the shelf location of a retail product and the quantity of product to pick.
At the Madrid-area warehouse, the robotics hub facilitates communication between robot software developed by 6 River Systems Inc. and warehouse management software from Blue Yonder. DHL could redeploy the hub at another location with those systems without additional programming, Mr. Voss said.
Even if the hub is deployed at a location with different software, it is equipped with application programming interfaces and connectors that reduce the work needed "relative to traditional integrations," Blue Yonder senior product director Prabodh Joshi said.
Another benefit: The hub can orchestrate tasks between robots that otherwise don't speak to each other. For instance, if a picking robot will be functioning at a time that obstructs the path of a transport robot, the hub will know that in advance and tell the transport robot to choose a different location for its target item.
Mr. Voss expects the hub to reduce implementation time from weeks and months to days and cut costs from six figures "to a relatively low five-figure number," he said.
Dwight Klappich, a fellow at research and consulting firm Gartner Inc., said there will likely be a growing need for platforms that can manage different types of robots. "As robots continue to grow, it's going to become increasingly important."
Write to Jared Council at email@example.com
(END) Dow Jones Newswires