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How Robots are Rebooting Sorting Processes at Distribution Centers

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August 18, 2022

By Lucas McCallister, DHL eCommerce Solutions

When I think about the future, I think ahead 10 to 20 years from now, imagining warehouses and distribution centers filled with robots toiling alongside hardworking humans. 

In the e-commerce sector, the COVID-19 pandemic caused exponential growth, leading to a world of consumers with an insatiable demand to conveniently shop online for the most basic and most necessary items. For companies tasked with sorting and delivering these orders, the rise of volume has caused many challenges, including labor shortages. These factors have accelerated the adoption of robotics and automation.

According to an MHI report on the supply chain in 2020, the adoption rate for robotics and automation increased more than any other supply chain technology between 2019 and 2020. The adoption rate of robotics clocked in at 32%, and adoption of automation at 39%.

One of the biggest trends we saw in the warehouse and distribution center environment was robotic sortation systems or robotic arms that can sort thousands of small packages and envelopes.

Sorting to the next level

In the lightweight package shipping business, such as in the case of DHL eCommerce Solutions in the U.S., robotic sortation systems have been tested to sort to multiple final mile ZIP codes and handle more than 1,000 pieces per hour with packages that weigh up to 15 lbs. (6.8 kg). Using a robotic sortation system, packages are picked from a conveyor belt to a drawer-shaped end-effector and are placed in the appropriate receptacle bound for a specific destination. 

Overall, the error rate is near zero, and packages can be sorted in 3.6 seconds. The robotic arms can help streamline sorting processes and limit worker intervention, a plus given current labor shortages. They can also conduct repetitive menial tasks, allowing for employees to focus on other tasks.

Other options for automation include robotic arms that conduct gravity sorting, in which packages are dropped directly into bags on carts, using vacuum grippers. Both robotic arm sorters and gravity sorters provide analytics to companies to help them measure productivity levels.

Sophisticated robotics take the wheel

In addition to a robotic sortation system doing conventional package sorting, some robots can learn new tasks through artificial intelligence algorithms that perceive the environments robots operate in, making decisions through deep learning methods. A subset of machine learning, deep learning lets robots absorb large amounts of data via environmental factors, such as images or text. 

These robots allow for greater throughput and continuously improve with deep learning as it acquires more data. Additionally, other robots are being developed that can be controlled remotely by a human to more efficiently help the robot’s performance improve.  

Using a robotic arm in distribution center and warehouse operations provides efficiency and speed benefits, streamlining processes for operations. While these robots can carry a hefty price tag, we are already seeing the benefits they have on our business today, LucasMcCallister DHLand we expect them to become more affordable as they become more widespread.

In the long run, they can help reduce logistics costs by reducing shipping errors and improving inventory management – ultimately taking the e-commerce sector to the next level.


About the author: Lucas McCallister is a project engineer of automation strategy, DHL eCommerce Solutions. He can be reached via LinkedIn here.

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