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Robot dance story

DB Schenker prepares toys for ­dispatch on behalf of the Swedish online retailer Lekmer.com. The system is super fast and supremely reliable.

When “logistics” is assigned to cover a topic from the world of logistics, the team usually includes a writer and a photographer. In the case of a reportage on DB Schenker’s warehouse in the Swedish town of Arlanda­stad, the team was assisted by Wall-E, the robot from the movie of the same name. The logistics center near Stockholm is also manned by robots. Using a digitized system, DB Schenker prepares consignments for dispatch on behalf of Lekmer.com, Scandinavia’s largest online retailer for toys and children’s wear. Reason enough for the “logistics” team and Wall-E to experience the system.

From our vantage point in the mezzanine, the scene unfolding below resembles a complex choreography: a robot dance. The robots are compact, cube-shaped vehicles that move with a quiet whirring sound as they dance with the shiny, silver shelves. What the “logistics” team and their trusty companion made of Lego are witnessing here, just a stone’s throw from Stockholm’s international airport, is the world’s first complete installation of Carry­Pick. 

DB Schenker Logistics in Sweden is responsible for implementing this automated storage and goods-to-person order picking system as part of the digitization offensive Logistics 4.0.

Customized for e-commerce

“It is supremely reliable,” says Anders Holmberg. The 44-year-old Strategic Business Development Manager is in effect the man behind the solution. “Warehouse logistics lie at the very heart of every e-commerce provider, which is why most companies prefer to keep it under their own control. 

Anders Holmberg

It is a distinction for us to ­have been tasked with these logistics services on behalf of ­Lekmer.com.” But what is actually taking place here? Holmberg explains the precise workings during a tour around the enclosed area. The solution has been customized to the requirements of the Swedish vendor and his vast product portfolio. The online retailer stores well in excess of 30,000 articles on 1,500 transportable steel shelves; anything from china sets for doll’s houses to Lego construction kits. The 65 automated guided vehicles shoulder the shelves and take them to one of seven work stations where employees pick the goods as needed and package them ready for dispatch. This is done manually on the spot or a few meters further on at a packaging machine.

This system, which was developed by the Swiss provider Swisslog, is controlled by high-performance software. It continuously transmits orders from Lekmer’s customers and translates them into “marching orders” for the transport robots. “We call them AGVs, short for Automated Guided Vehicles. They are equipped with electric drive units and are guided by these stickers,” says Anders Holmberg, pointing to the floor. The floor is dotted with a regular pattern made up of hundreds of QR codes. This elaborate technology required comprehensive testing, first using simulated computer models and then trial runs.

The system’s key advantage is apparent from the outset: the dance performed by the robots and shelves is extremely fast-paced. “Speed is of the essence in ­e-commerce,” says Holmberg. “If a consignment doesn’t reach its destination within two days at the latest, then many customers simply order the same item from another retailer.” The item that arrives later is then returned, and the next time the customer simply orders from the retailer who provided the fastest service. “Same day deliveries” are also becoming increasingly important. In total, Lekmer.com handles around one million consignments a year from Scandinavia and the Netherlands, and all are processed via Arlandastad. All the better that DB Schenker gets packages ready for transport in record time.

The tour takes us to one of the work stations. “That’s Wall-E, isn’t he cute!” exclaims Timea Pap, one of the employees. Another shelf drives up, and a key advantage of the system becomes apparent in the form of a light spot. A projector transmits a light signal, which points to the top shelf. The young woman takes a carton filled with fairy figurines and places it in an open compartment to her right. Another light spot indicates the correct position. “This system supports us every step of the way,” says Timea Pap and taps the touch screen. The shelf is driven off and a few seconds later the next shelf arrives. “CarryPick minimizes the risk of a customer receiving the wrong item,” says Holmberg.

Creating software links

At one of the work stations the processes operate in reverse order. This is where shelves are restocked with returned items and ­replenishments. The employees are being carefully trained, whether they are working inbound or outbound. But it all pays off: “Our several dozen team members are even able to handle the holiday shopping season.” As of November, the system is operating around the clock. There is no longer a need to train temporary workers. As CarryPick requires less space, it is highly cost-effective. Instead of humans driving around in bulky forklifts, robots bustle around the shelves. Only the immediate area around the work stations needs to be lit and heated.

As part of the solution, DB Schenker IT Experts delivered one vital component. “They wrote the program linking the software with our warehouse management system,” says Holmberg. This is the key to ensuring that the system can also be deployed at other locations. The industry is already showing a keen interest. “We received inquiries very early on. We realize that this solution has a strategic significance, for Scandinavia and also far beyond.”