Manufacturing Leaders’ Summit: Great things happen when logistics and technology collide

Mike Bristow, COO for manufacturing logistics at DHL, took to the main stage at Manufacturing Leaders’ Summit 2019 to share insights from DHL’s latest edition of its Trend Radar, which captures the development of society, business and technology.

Bristow picked out some real-life case studies and drew from his own experiences to provide insight and guidance on the reality of taking the aspirational and constantly changing world of technology into the practical world of logistics.

“If we consider the types of trends that the industry is talking about, there is so much going on, not just in the technological space but also social and business trends that are sometimes being fueled by technological advances,” he noted.

logistics and technology - Image courtesy of DHL Supply Chain UK - social, business and technology trends that are most likely to shape the future of logistics

Image courtesy of DHL Supply Chain UK


“There’s an awful lot hype around digitaliastion in the industry and in our businesses. We adopt an innovation funnel to help create the framework to transform digital innovation from ideas from problem definition to productised, scalable fast-track technologies.

“It starts with Problem definition, then Research and proof of concept, into the Pilot and then Product development, and finally into Commercialisation,” Bristow continued.

He then offered a handful of real-world test cases that are being progressed at DHL, specifically some that fall within the manufacturing environment.

1. DHL Parcelcopter 4.0 in Tanzania, Africa

“Last year, Pacerlcopter 4.0 was launched, revolutionising the delivery of medicines to remote areas using drones. The pilot project ‘Deliver Future’ proves that it’s not science fiction,” said Bristow.

Three experts in their respective fields are making it happen: DHL, the Deutsche Gesellschaft für Internationale Zusammenarbeit on behalf of the German Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development (BMZ), and the German drone manufacturer Wingcopter.

Over a six-month period, the consortium successfully tested the delivery of medicines using a drone to an island in Lake Victoria. During the trials, the autonomous DHL Parcelcopter 4.0 completed the 60km flight from the mainland to the island in 40 minutes on average.

A total of 2,200km were flown and roughly 2,000 flight minutes recorded during the pilot project.

“The drone opens up new opportunities to address the logistic challenges in the public health sector in many parts of Africa, especially supplying hospitals and pharmacies,” Bristow explained.

2. Robotics and automationLocus

A collaborative, autonomous robotics solution is being piloted in DHL Supply Chain US’s life sciences sector. So-called ‘LocusBots’ will be tested as warehouse picker companions for employees in order fulfilment.

Handheld devices can hamper efficiency and pushing carts causes physical strain on employees. Additionally, increase orders mean businesses are having to source additional workers, which can be a challenge.

LocusBots offer way to achieve higher productivity through transportation of picked orders. The benefits include reduced walking distances by switching to zone picking (robots come to workers who remain in pick zones), and minimal changes to the warehouse environment are required.

3. Robotics and automation – Robotics Process Automation (RPA)

RPA Automation Robotics - STOCK image

“In an increasingly complex and competitive business world, companies that operate global supply chains are under unprecedented pressure to deliver higher service levels at flat or even lower costs

At the same time internal functions of global corporations such as accounting, finance, human resources, legal, and IT are plagued by large amounts of detail-oriented, repetitive tasks.

Here, RPA presents a significant opportunity to save time, reduce costs and increase productivity and accuracy with process automation, according to Bristow.

“Our Operations Management System (OMS) enables operations to consistently fulfil their maximum performance potential by:

  • Reducing performance variation through routine management, standard setting and behavioural change
  • Developing a performance management mindset
  • Instilling a focus on quality
  • Setting the standard of how a site should work to continuously increase performance

Low cost sensors – Meerkat: Automating inventory management

Low cost sensors – Meerkat - Automating inventory management - image courtesy of DHL Supply Chain UK

Inventory management has always been a manual, time consuming task, with operations including location checks and empty location checks to ensure all locations for items match the ones on our systems.

These checks require using people and expensive equipment like scissor lifts or man-up machines. They can interrupt normal operations or are completed after normal hours requiring overtime pay rates.

“The ‘Meerkat’ system automates inventory checks when everyone has gone home, ensuring no pallet location inventory has been misplaced,” Bristow explained.

“By identifying pick and put-away errors, productivity is boosted as you know where stock is. Furthermore, you 100% eliminate lost pallets. By finding the mis-located pallets the next day, you can quickly identify the root cause.

“Worker safety is also increased as robots are doing the inventory checks and employees aren’t working at heights.”

So, what does this mean for manufacturers?

Through these explorations, DHL has discovered some key takeaways:

  • People are the key to ensuring greater efficiency and shaping operations for the future. Ownership should be in the hands of the operations team, i.e. the end users.
  • Start with a solid Warehouse Management Software‎ (WMS) foundation
  • We predict that there will be less humans doing repetitive tasks
  • Understand the business case/use before applying the technology and make sure it fixes a problem
  • Look at the small areas as that is where the value is

What should you expect from a logistics partner? 

“When it comes to a logistics or supply chain partner, we believe there a few things that every organisation needs to consider,” Bristow said.

“The first is to they need to implement a methodical and standard ways of working. This is critical in terms of measuring productivity and efficiency of what you are doing.

“This leads to benchmarking your operations against peers (in the same industry and others) and bringing best practice or the “best known way”

“In today’s digital age we believe that visibility of your supply chain is key. Considering global supply chains are stretching further across regions and boundaries. What happens when something doesn’t go right at the start of your supply chain? When do you get to know about that?

“We have a responsibility to the environment that we work and live in. What’s the impact of what we are doing?

“Lastly, your partners need to invest in your business and what your business objectives are. The right providers, with the right partnerships should back you.”

“What does this mean for you and your business? It should create efficiencies in your manufacturing operation, it should allow you to increase output, and it should allow you to improve your order to cash cycle,” Bristow concluded.

DHL Supply Chain – A global provider with a unique portfolio

DHL Supply Chain is the number one contract logistics partner in the world, providing warehousing, managed transport and value-added services at every link in the supply chain.

There are about 145,000 employees that work in more than 55 countries around the world and in 1,400 locations – including almost 13 million sqm of owned or leased warehouse space.

In the UK, the organisation comprises 42,000 employees, 450 customers, 419 operations and around 7,000 vehicles

The infographic illustrates the sheer volume of Ferrero products packed and distributed by DHL in time for Christmas - image courtesy of Deutsche Post AG.

Image courtesy of Deutsche Post AG.


For some of the leading premium automotive manufacturers in the UK, the provider manages the inbound flow of materials right up the point of fit – including sequencing of parts so that manufacturers can build model variants on the same production line.