“Making sure your people are on board is just as important as investing in research and development. I think we all agree it is crucial to develop new solutions that improve working conditions, and it’s a thrill to see these technologies in action. But involving our staff at an early stage is also crucial for acceptance and ultimately success.”

John Gilbert
Member of the Board of Management Supply Chain

Interview with John Gilbert

“People love working for an innovative company.”

Mr. Gilbert, change is a constant in the logistics business. The Supply Chain division has tested many innovations, such as augmented realityThe computer-assisted expansion of the perception of reality, where the real and virtual worlds are combined. Examples include the overlay of offside lines or distances to goal in televised soccer matches., robots and IoT solutions. What’s going to make its mark in the coming years?

I think all of them are going to have an impact. Advances are being made every day. Augmented reality, for example, seems to only make headlines when it’s about gaming, but the technology harbors a lot of potential for logistics. Right now we’re using it for order picking in some of our warehouses and our staff is really impressed – it significantly reduces errors, increases productivity and makes onboarding new employees much faster and easier. They wear smart glassesComputer eyewear that projects digital information such as e-mails, navigation directions and social media information into the wearer’s field of vision; they are also used in augmented reality applications. equipped with software customized for the picking process. All the information they need is displayed on the tiny screen inside the glasses – they see the next shelf, the amount of product needed and where it should go. It’s hands-free and reduces the time and energy needed to fulfill an order. The technology is very promising – for other applications as well.

The same applies to robotics. Robots are becoming more and more autonomous and intelligent, which means they are now better able to handle specific tasks within our logistics operations. Although the initial capital investment is still relatively high, we’ve been testing a variety of collaborative robots in our warehouses and we think it’s worth it. Two of them – “Baxter” and “Sawyer” – can do things like wrap or assemble products. “Effi-BOT” is another collaborative robot we are testing – an automated cart specifically designed for multi-order picking. It follows the picker around the warehouse, who loads it up and sends it to a drop-off location. After the cart is unloaded, it automatically rolls to the next picker who needs one. Warehouse work is demanding – this system reduces the physical burden on our employees since they no longer have to carry heavy loads, push heavy carts and put unnecessary mileage on their feet. So the added efficiency of automation also means improved working conditions, something we are always striving for.

3D printing is another promising technology that will see its importance grow in the near future. DHL has been testing a variety of 3D printers and techniques for several years and we certainly see potential for it to redefine manufacturing and supply chain strategies. But it won’t replace mass production. Instead, it will complement it by simplifying the production of highly complex and customizable products and spare parts. This will bring manufacturing and logistics closer together than ever before. A “spare parts on demand” model cuts inventory costs and “product postponement services” increase customization while reducing lead times to the customer. This divides manufacturing and assembly into different stages and final production could be completed by 3D printers locally or in the region. Whatever road manufacturers choose to go down, they’ll need to completely rethink their supply chain strategies.

Data will also play a key role in the future of warehousing and logistics. We’ll be able to plan better through intelligent prediction and route optimization based on advanced algorithms, artificial intelligence and software robots. And I expect these tools will open doors to new and disruptive logistics innovations in the future.

Overall, I think businesses will need technologies like these to be sustainable – ones that increase efficiency and employee satisfaction so that we can cope with issues such as labor shortages and shifting attitudes toward work-life balance.

How are your people responding to these changes in their working environment? In what ways are you letting them participate in the innovation process?

Making sure your people are on board is just as important as investing in research and development. I think we all agree it is crucial to develop new solutions that improve working conditions, and it’s a thrill to see these technologies in action. But involving our staff at an early stage is also crucial for acceptance and ultimately success. That’s why we keep them and our social partners up to date, asking them to participate in the development and to test the outcome. Our vision picking and collaborative robot pilots are two examples. Both were well accepted and we received very positive and detailed feedback. People love working for an innovative company, but you’ll only be able to put theory into practice if you involve everyone in the process.

The traditional portfolio of contract logistics services such as planning, sourcing and supplier management now includes packaging, repairs, returns and recycling. How have increasingly eco-minded customers impacted the development of these services? How do you plan to expand them?

Customers are certainly more environmentally conscious, which has sped up the development of related services in the industry. The Group’s GoGreen program put sustainability at the center of our customer solutions a long time ago, and we’ve never stopped evolving, adapting and expanding them, not to mention adding new and innovative solutions to our portfolio.

We offer a full range of eco-friendly logistics solutions to reduce our customers’ impact on the environment. Our portfolio of Envirosolutions covers waste management, extended producer responsibility as well as consulting services and support as a lead environmental partner. Our tailored, end-to-end waste management solutions help reduce, recycle and re-use waste to help companies reach zero landfill objectives. Our solution to convert waste into energy at Gatwick Airport is the first of its kind in the world. Producer responsibility is all about helping local governments, charities and businesses with the issue of compliance, regardless of the geography or product. We put our extensive business, product and legal knowledge to work to ensure accurate reporting and reduce administrative complexity and costs. The goal is to empower them to improve their environmental performance through integrated logistics and environmental solutions around the world and across all industries.

Deutsche Post DHL Group aspires to be the benchmark for responsible business by 2020. One of the most important aspects of this is building the resilience of global supply chains as risks continue to grow. What is your division doing to ensure supply and value chain security?

Supply chains today are more global and complex than ever before, which makes risk assessment and management more and more important. This complexity and current threats such as terrorism, piracy or political instability make transparency crucial. That’s why we use our global risk management platform Resilience360 to monitor incidents, generate a risk assessment and support preparation for and prevention of any adverse effects. It allows us to intervene quickly and minimize any impact on our customer’s value chain. We also launched the Resilience360 Transparency Portal this year. In certain industries – such as food or textile – some companies still struggle to identify and visualize their entire supply chain, especially when it involves multiple layers of suppliers and sub-suppliers. The online tool allows customers to easily assess those levels and ensure compliance is fully met along every link in the value chain.

“Seeing the bigger picture” is the tagline of this year’s Corporate Responsibility Report. How does that apply to your own responsibilities and goals for Supply Chain in 2017?

Seeing the bigger picture is definitely a part of Supply Chain’s strategy in 2017 and beyond. Our business strategy is based on the Group’s Strategy 2020, which was introduced in 2014 and rests on the three pillars of Focus, Connect and Grow. Basically, we want to focus on driving global standardization in order to improve our operations, better connect our organization across the globe to make it more effective, and grow in sectors and markets we consider promising to tap into opportunities and achieve sustainable growth. The Life Sciences and Healthcare sector and building up our capabilities in the Asia Pacific region are some examples of where we’d like to grow. You certainly have to see the big picture to do all that. Our course is set and we’re already reaping the rewards.