Tech News : Rent-a-Robot

It’s been reported that global logistics firm DHL is using “a good number” of leased robots to help it deal with high demand over the Christmas period.

What For … And Where? 

The Wall Street Journal has reported that DHL is using leased robots for package handling over the Christmas period. Jobs the robots can help with include sorting/receiving/unloading [packages], moving heavy payloads, replenishing stock shelves, picking up orders, fulfilment, and helping to handle returns after the Christmas period.

Why? 

The reasons why temporary so-called “surge bots” are being used include:

– A surge in demand for delivery services over the Christmas period.

– A shortage of labour/workers.

– Supply-chain disruptions.

– A sharp increase in online shopping triggered by the Covid-19 pandemic.

– Enabling smaller businesses to achieve low-cost, low risk automation and avoid high wages.

– Potential for immediate savings through improved efficiency.

– Companies can try out the technology and move to lease-to buy (for example) if it delivers results.

How Many Robots? 

It’s not clear exactly how many “a good number” of leased robots is for this Christmas period but, according to reports of comments by Sally Miller, chief information officer of DHL’s North American supply-chain business, DHL may have as many as 2,000 robots working in its facilities by the end of the year.

How Do You Lease A Robot? 

Leasing a robot / involves paying a subscription-like fee from third-party robotics firms. Frees vary depending on the tasks the robots are required to perform, along with other variables such as processing volumes and the kinds of packages being handled.

Part of the preparation by the companies leasing the robots involves taking a 3-D scan of a facility and feeding the data into an AI program to create a mock-up of a robot’s mechanical, electrical, and software systems.

Why Lease Instead Of Buy? 

Companies such as DHL and others may lease instead of buy robots because surges in demand may only be short-lived and relatively predictable (leased robots can be ordered in advance where and upturn is expected), e.g. Christmas, where companies can also avoid upfront costs and ongoing maintenance expenses.

What Does This Mean For Your Business? 

As Amazon has shown with its use of robot arms ‘Robin’ and ‘Cardinal’ to re-direct boxed-up pre-delivery items around its warehouses and now the ‘Sparrow’ robot in the handling (parcels) part of its business, robots can bring the business benefits of improved efficiency, safety, and 24-hour / 365 days a year working. Amazon, however, is a huge and growing company and the largest manufacturer of industrial robots in the world. Other companies, however, don’t manufacture their own, may not have the scale, funds, figures, confidence in, or commitment to justify buying robots but may need to tackle periods of high demand, while not having the labour or be able to pay higher wages to do it.

This is where leasing robots / robots-as-a-service come into their own, not only giving often smaller businesses a way to achieve low-cost, low risk automation but also enabling them to try robot technology in their business before committing to buying it. In the case of this story, DHL is a large global business which already has warehousing and logistics robots such as its Stretch robot (from Boston Dynamics) for its automated trailer loading. Automation of this kind is revolutionising not just parcel and warehousing businesses but businesses in many other sectors that need to meet similar challenges. For now, although robots can’t completely replace humans in most factories and warehouses, they can make operations more efficient.

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