Breakthrough technologies don’t just happen. They result from extensive development efforts and, in the case of the new Boston Dynamics Stretch™ robot now unloading containers in a DHL Supply Chain warehouse, close collaboration between partners with complementary expertise.
Stretch was developed through a strategic collaboration between the two companies with Boston Dynamics providing world-class robotics technology and DHL supplying unmatched warehouse operations expertise and proven processes for integrating automation into the supply chain. In this article, DHL experts Brian Gaunt, senior director of operations development, and Matthew Dippold, director of operations development, discuss the development process and the innovative solution that resulted from it.
Q. Why did you choose container unloading as the target use case for the strategic collaboration with Boston Dynamics?
Matthew: There were multiple reasons the two organizations agreed that container unloading would be the initial use case for autonomous robotic arms in the warehouse. First, there wasn’t a mobile automation solution available for this application, and it is one of the least desirable jobs in the warehouse. Unloading a full container of cartons is a physically demanding job that is often performed in harsh conditions. The warehouse for our initial deployment of the technology is in Memphis so imagine the heat and humidity employees experience while doing physical labor in a metal container in August. Secondly, the reaching, lifting and twisting required to unload cartons increases the risk of injury. Getting our people out of this environment has been a priority for us, and we were eager to have a solution that does that.
Finally, automating unloading improves operations. You generally don’t have a dedicated team for this task because there may be only two or three containers a day that need to be unloaded. When containers arrive, employees are pulled away from other tasks such as picking or putaway for several hours, and that can have a negative impact on those processes. By having a robot available at the dock to unload containers, we were able to remove one of the most unpleasant tasks from warehouse personnel while enabling them to focus on tasks where they add the most value.
Q. Why was it important for Boston Dynamics and DHL Supply Chain to work together so closely on this solution?
Brian: One of the challenges we encounter when evaluating new supply chain technology is that some vendors have really good technology but lack the in-depth understanding of supply chain processes required to apply that technology in ways that deliver value to our operations. Boston Dynamics is one of the leading robotics companies in the world, but they didn’t have experience in warehouse processes, and we were able to provide that. By having access to our operations, they were able to conduct detailed analyses of container unloading requirements at a number of different sites. And, by piloting multiple iterations of the solution in our operations, we were able to provide feedback based on real-world conditions that helped ensure the final design would deliver the value and functionality we expect. We also have established processes for matching technology to the right use case, piloting that technology and expanding its use across our network. It was a very synergistic relationship where both organizations benefitted from the other’s expertise.
Q. How does the solution work in this use case?
Matthew: The final solution is an autonomous robot that works with a flexible, extendable conveyor to automate the process of container unloading. The robot’s vision system provides a full view of the interior of the container, and embedded intelligence allows the robot to develop an unloading strategy based on the carton type and how cartons are positioned in the container. The robotic arm uses suction to grip cartons from either the top, side or front, depending on their orientation and the arm’s access to the carton. For example, the robot may grip the top rows of cartons from the front and then decide the remaining cartons can be most efficiently picked from the top. The arm then places the carton on the conveyor and selects the next carton, working autonomously until the container is completely unloaded. If there is another container to be unloaded at a different dock door, the robot and conveyor unit can easily be moved to the next dock door.
Q. How do the robots perform in their first deployment?
Matthew: The robots are currently unloading at a rate that is comparable to or slightly faster than humans with the benefit of not having to take any breaks and eliminating the injury risks associated with container unloading. They will go faster in the future, but one of the things we realized through our pilot program is that there really isn’t a strong business case for pushing speed in this use case as there might be in item picking. There generally isn’t a backup of containers in the yard, and the unloading speed needs to match the speed of downstream sorting and palletizing processes. So, the focus of this initial deployment was on safe, reliable and efficient unloading and the system has performed very well in all regards. It’s especially impressive to watch Stretch deal with exceptions based on the business rules defined for the application and the intelligence designed into the system. If the robot encounters something it hasn’t seen before, it quickly figures out how to handle it.
Q. How have associates responded to this technology?
Brian: Our associates love the technology. As Matthew mentioned, container unloading is not a task any associate looks forward to, so Stretch has been a very welcome addition. The system has proven to be easy to operate and people are excited to work with the robots.
Q. Now that you’ve successfully deployed this new technology, what’s next?
Matthew: As you can imagine, there is a high interest in this solution among our customers who receive containers. Our focus for this year will be on expanding deployments of the technology to other sites we operate.
Learn more about DHL Supply Chain’s strategic collaboration with Boston Dynamics to advance supply chain digitalization.