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05/10/2022

DHL succeeds with robotic sortation pilot

Dan Berthiaume
Senior Editor, Technology
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DHL is deploying robotic sortation systems in its supply chain.

The e-commerce division of DHL Group has been piloting two automated systems in a key distribution center.

DHL E-Commerce Solutions has been testing the DoraSorter robotic systems in its Atlanta distribution center. The robotic sortation solutions are part of a broader $100 million, five-year corporate automation investment plan.

DHL adopted two artificial intelligence (AI)-based DoraSorter robotic systems with separate configurations: “sort-to-bag” and “sort-to-Gaylord.” These configurations are each capable of sorting more than 1,000 parcels and packages per hour weighing up to 15 lbs. with a near-zero error rate.

The DoraSorters are equipped with 3D and barcode cameras to scan a package, informing the robotic arm about the package’s location and which bag or container is the targeted destination. Using the sort-to-bag configuration, the system receives parcels and packages from the facility’s primary sorter and distributes them to 80 separate final mile ZIP code destinations. According to DHL, this system produces an 80% increase in labor efficiency.

The sort-to-Gaylord solution has a proprietary drawer-shaped conveyor belt end effector that enables an assortment of parcels to be sorted and placed in Gaylord containers (a single corrugated container that can store an entire pallet’s worth of goods). Currently, the system DHL is piloting at its Atlanta facility sorts to 20 separate five-foot-tall Gaylord containers with what DHL says is a practically perfect sorting accuracy.

“With a near zero error rate and packages sorted on average in 3.6 seconds, our robotic arm pilot at DHL eCommerce Solutions has increased our efficiency, speed and streamlined our processes,” said Scott Ashbaugh, VP of operations, DHL E-commerce Solutions, Americas. “It has also allowed our employees to focus on other non-repetitive tasks, and for some, it has provided new skills to work with robotic arms and automation.” 

“The Dorabot deployments in DHL E-ommerce Solutions is a winning example of the effective collaboration between the business unit and the DHL Innovation Center,” says Ben Perlson, robotics and automation Lead with DHL Customer Solutions & Innovation. “The Innovation Center team supports operations by maintaining a pipeline of advanced technology solutions and strategic partners to continuously create new value through innovation and deliver greater service levels for our customers.”

"The DoraSorters are essentially like owning power tools that allow DHL E-Commerce Solutions to improve the output by a factor up to four and perform important tasks with greater efficiency, " said Spencer Deng, CEO of Dorabot. "As a robotic solutions provider, this is what we have been working on constantly - to deliver impactful results to our partners."

In June 2021, DHL E-commerce Solutions’ sister division DHL Express announced the deployment of its first Dorabot AI-powered robotic sortation system at one of its service centers based in Miami.

Robotic automation in distribution centers is becoming increasingly common across the extended retail enterprise. For example, discount giant Walmart is making a multi-million-dollar investment in high-tech automation for its regional distribution center (RDC) in Menomonie, Wis. The investment is part of a broader initiative the retailer announced in July 2021 to renovate 25 of its 42 regional distribution centers with automated technology.

Walmart hopes to support a broader digital transformation in its supply chain aimed at increasing the speed, efficiency, and safety at which products are distributed. The first phase of the renovation will be completed by the end of 2022.