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Q&A: Denis Niezgoda, Robotics Accelerator Lead at DHL

DHL is the leading global brand in the logistics industry and Denis Niezgoda has worked for the company for over seven years and currently leads the Robotics Accelerator programme, which supports the business by encouraging the adoption of robotics technologies and solutions. He works closely with partners, customers and startups to prototype new solutions to help businesses benefit from the potential that robotic technology can bring.

Denis, can you tell us about the partnerships DHL is leveraging to deliver pilot programmes integrating collaborative robots alongside warehouse staff?

We have a number of partnerships in place with a variety of leading robotics companies to deploy their solutions across different operational environments. For example, our DHL Supply Chain division purchased around a dozen Sawyer robots from Rethink Robotics to support our customer operations with co-packing activities or other highly repetitive work streams. For the past year we have also worked with Effidence, testing its follow-me robots to help streamline our warehouse and last-mile delivery operations. Most recently, we have teamed up with Locus Robotics and Fetch Robotics to introduce robots that were specifically designed to work alongside employees and help them with physically strenuous tasks. The robots are helping to increase productivity and safety in the warehouse working environment too. Workers are able to interact with the robots via touchscreen technology, enabling them to quickly and easily assign tasks and send them on their way, at the push of a button.

Our work with these companies has already helped us to understand the value the use of robotics can deliver to the logistics industry, and we’re confident that further trials will continue to help us unlock the potential these technologies can bring.

Why is there a need for robotics solutions in logistics? What are the benefits of using collaborative technologies in the workplace?

Up until now, robotics technology has not made a large impact in the world of logistics. However, this is about to change as we start to see advanced robots enter our warehouses, sorting centres, and even help with final-mile delivery. We believe that logistics workers will benefit from collaborating with robots, which will be able to take on some of the more physically strenuous and repetitive tasks. Meanwhile customers should benefit too – they will likely see faster, better quality service. Following a number of successful implementations, we’re starting to see robots and their human counterparts work side by side in warehouses, deliveries and at sorting centres. Logistics plays a fundamental role in the success of the manufacturing process and by using robots, we are able to evolve business models to increase productivity and profitability. From inbound logistics to the finished product leaving the site ready for delivery, robotics has an increasingly important role to play in the logistics industry.

How can businesses successfully implement collaborative technologies into the workplace?

As a first step, I would say that it’s important to understand your business needs and pain-points to identify metrics you want to improve in the process that could potentially benefit from the use of robotic technology. This could be, for example, highly repetitive tasks with limited complexity in manipulation and navigation.

What new skills will workforces need to ensure collaborative technologies can work for the industry?

We have always looked for people who carry a certain technological understanding. This is a requirement for us because of the nature of logistics and the types of technologies that we already have in place. However, as we start to introduce more niche and startup-based robotics solutions into our business, we are seeing a real rise in the need for software engineers. Historically, the industry has not been known for its wealth of roles in technological engineering beyond stationary automation, but this is fast increasing. Take the partnership with Fetch as an example. Here, 80% of the technology is software compared to hardware. As a leading business, we believe we are responsible for recruiting into our industry, not just for our own business benefit but to ensure the progression of the industry as a whole.

We hear a lot in the news about robots replacing workers. How do you see the increase in robots affecting the workforce at DHL? What has the reaction been like from DHL staff to their new robotic coworkers?

With the increase of technologies such as robotics we naturally see a growing debate around their use in everyday life and the impact on people. However, we believe that robots, far from replacing their human counterparts, will actually help provide a solution to one of the biggest challenges facing the logistics industry today – a lack of labour availability. It’s not easy for companies around the world to find enough high-quality employees to move goods from suppliers to customers. Two competing factors are making this especially difficult. The first is an increasing need for more logistics workers, driven by e-commerce and a greater need for parcel shipments driven by a globally growing economy. The second is a decline in the size of the available workforce as a result of shrinking population levels in the western world.

Take a look in your crystal ball… five years from now, what does the warehouse floor at DHL look like and how are robots used?

Already today we are seeing the first examples entering distribution centres. It seems clear that it is not a matter of “if” but rather “when” robots will be working in our warehouses. The outlook for robotics is very positive and the world of logistics will benefit from the coming advances in robotics technology. Within a generation, workers in warehouses and distribution centres will be able to work side-by-side with robots. With robots taking over the more labour focused, repetitive jobs, workers will be free to concentrate on more challenging and enriching tasks, thereby helping to drive the progression of the industry.

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