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Digitalising the supply chain: Drones in the warehouse, sensors in the forklifts

Digitalising the supply chain: Drones in the warehouse, sensors in the forklifts

Steve Walker, Asia Pacific CIO for DHL, on how the logistics company is preparing for Industry 4.0.

We should leverage the data to predict the future and look at opportunities for the business, to create new channels and even new markets...How do we disrupt ourselves?

Steve Walker, DHL

In the past, warehouse managers could easily oversee operations just by looking through a window.

Now, we can do this from a mobile app to see what is happening, says Steve Walker, Asia Pacific CIO for DHL, Walker, who spoke about DHL’s digitalisation programme at the Fujitsu World Tour 2017 in Auckland.

Walker looks at digitalisation “as the change associated with the application of digital technology in all aspects of human society”.

“Digitalisation inherently enables new types of innovation and creativity in a particular area, rather than simply enhancing and supporting traditional methods.”

He talks about digitalisation and speed of change and how these impact businesses.

He traces the change wrought by technology through four phases of revolution since the 18th century

The first industrial revolution, in the 1750s, brought steam and mechanical production.

The second industrial revolution, in the 1850s, brought mass production, labour division and electricity.

The third industrial revolution, in the 1950s, brought electronics, information technology and automated production.

He says the fourth industrial revolution, which is in between the third revolution and the future, is about supply chain 4.0 and digitalisation.

“What technology is out there we should be thinking about and looking at?”

In his presentation, he talked about the range of tools - from drones, wearable technologies and smart apps - DHL is piloting or using in its operations across the globe.

The company now runs fully automated warehouses, he says.

At an IoT trial in Singapore, staff are alerted whenever they are in close proximity to a forklift. The alarm goes out whenever a person and the vehicle are within two metres of each other.

The driver is alerted to stop the vehicle and the supervisor also gets an alert.

He says sensors also allow them to track hotspots of these alerts, and where there are bottlenecks in operations they needed to resolve.

"We take these learnings on how do we apply it to health and safety but also productivity gains, and are able to roll it out across the business," says Walker.

Logistics is the backbone in global trade, he says, on the significance of these operations. “It connects manufacturers and consumers. We are an essential part of everyday life.”

Deutsche Post DHL, for instance, is the biggest e-commerce last kilometre delivery provider in Germany. DHL Express delivers 1.2 billion parcels every year. DHL Global Forwarding delivers international freight by air, sea and land.

The DHL supply chain is a contract logistics operations, covering 12 million square meters of warehouses globally.

He says drones are used to do the inventory. This is done at night when warehouse staff are not at work.

"We were the first company to fly out a drone out of sight in Germany," he states. “We flew a pharmaceutical item to someone who needed it in a village.”

Everyday, millions of pieces of information are recorded - the question is, how do we make better use of it?

Steve Walker, DHL

The company also uses autonomous vehicles in the warehouse. The ‘follow me bot’ trolley will take itself out to the dispatch area when it is filled.

“The time you waste taking this trolley back and coming back again is a significant amount,” he explains.

He says DHL has a group that looks at the logistics trends radar. These cover megatrends and technology like augmented reality.

Using augmented reality devices, warehouse workers are guided where to go and pick the items needed. The devices allow hands-free scanning, and workers find these easy and intuitive to use, he says.

Walker says the system has been rolled out across regions including the Asia Pacific.

He says PwC estimates in three years, more than 75 million wearables will permeate the workplace.

Walker believes this figure is understated, as DHL continues to look for opportunities to exploit this kind of technology.

What technology is out there we should be thinking about and looking at?

Steve Walker, DHL

In the UK, he says, DHL ran a programme to study how to prevent sleep-related road deaths.

He says 28 DHL drivers took part in the six-week study, where they clocked in 15,000 hours of drive data and 1254 drowsiness alerts.

DHL used wearable sensors that can alert people and control towers when somebody starts to get drowsy. The driver can be informed to stop and take a break.

The study found evidence of drowsiness peaks two hours into a driving shift, and within the last two-thirds hours of a shift.

Big data also plays a big part in their operations as more things are connected through the Internet of Things.

“Everyday, millions of pieces of information are recorded - the question is, how do we make better use of it?”

“We should leverage the data to predict the future and look at opportunities for the business, to create new channels and even new markets,” Walker says. “How do we disrupt ourselves?”

His final message for businesses out there: “Don’t get left behind.”

The DHL Parcelcopter prototype 'parcelcopter.
The DHL Parcelcopter prototype 'parcelcopter.

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