Why DHL employs robotic forklifts in its warehouses

Sally Miller of DHL—Fox Robotics’ first client—on the future of warehouse automation


Sally Miller, Chief Information Officer of North America Supply Chain at DHL, sits down with Steve Crowe of the Robot Report Podcast to discuss the emergence of robots in warehouses and why DHL is partnering with companies like Fox Robotics to improve efficiency in trailer unloading, address labor shortages, and create a more harmonious work environment for employees.

At DHL, Fox Robotics’ robotic forklifts work in tandem with case-unloading robots from Boston Dynamics and a mobile-bot picking system from Locus Robotics, maximizing efficiency throughout their warehouses, from truck unloading to order picking.

Miller notes that when it comes to one of the central tasks in any warehouse—trailer unloading—automation is key. Not only is unloading a demanding task, but it’s also a challenging role to staff. Attracting and retaining hourly labor is difficult, particularly for one of the “least-liked jobs in the facility,” explains Miller.


An unintended benefit of warehouse automation


As labor shortages persist, automated warehouse solutions multiply the productivity of existing employees. For instance, rather than relying on a single operator to drive a single forklift, Fox Robotics allows one operator to manage six to eight forklifts at a time.

Plus, robots create new and different kinds of jobs, including more skilled, higher-paying jobs for workers who can intervene if the robots glitch. Higher applicant rates for positions in warehouses where robots are deployed also suggest that robots actually attract staff in a competitive labor market.

DHL employees who work with Locus’ co-bots—robots intended to work alongside humans—report a less noisy and chaotic work environment and experience lower turnover rates. Employees say their work environment is more enjoyable as they work closely with and learn from the technology.


The decision to deploy robots in DHL warehouses


Fox Robotics’ autonomous pallet unloaders not only solve labor shortage challenges at DHL, but also fit into existing DHL workflows. For Miller, knowing whether a solution fits a significant number of DHL facilities is the first step in evaluating new technologies.

Similarly, Miller considers how the solution can be integrated into DHL’s warehouse management system (WMS) and how integration affects ROI. For example, Fox Robotics forklifts don’t need any integration into a WMS, making for a speedy deployment process and contributing to ROI immediately. Miller also considers the number of sites in which the technology can be deployed and how quickly and safely the robots perform their tasks.


The future of robots in warehouses


There’s still much to do when it comes to automating work in warehouses, and there’s abundant opportunity for companies to find more ways to automate shipping and picking tasks within distribution centers, says Miller.

First and foremost, she explains, there’s a need to marry safety standards with speed so that the bots work as well and as quickly as humans or autonomous material handling equipment (MHE). Ultimately, robotics companies should continue to “focus on areas that reduce our dependency on labor,” while creating robots that “work well with humans and optimize their productivity,” concludes Miller.


Listen to the full episode below.