Robots in the Future of Logistics

June 2015

Image Source: DHL Paket

Robotics and autonomous vehicles, along with technologies such as the Internet of Everything (IoE), big data analysis and additive manufacturing, will irreversibly transform supply chain operations and logistics, of both the indoors and outdoors kinds. The principal worldwide logistics services, and the technologies suppliers, are adapting their strategies and establishing alliances which will mark the way towards these future scenarios.


  • The six “rights” of logistics - The optimal process for the distribution of merchandise is set out in the rubric of the six “rights”: the right goods, in the right quantity, in the right condition, to the right place, at the right time, and for the right cost.

  • A $4 trillion market - The global logistics market is worth in excess of $4 trillion, which represents some 10% of global GDP. Within this overall area the transport sector is the one which is showing the greatest growth, at an annual average of 7% since 2011. It is predicted that by 2016 the market for this sector alone will be worth $3.6 trillion. Source: FreightXtension.

  • Robotic logistics systems - In 2013 some 1,900 robotic logistics systems were installed worldwide, 37% more than in the previous year, accounting for about 9% of the total sales of robots for professional services. The market for logistics systems was reckoned to be worth $216 million in 2014. Source: International Federation of Robotics (IFR). 

  • Material handling robots – Sales of robots for palletizing, packaging and specialized materials handling are projected to grow at a 10.1% CAGR and to reach $31.3 billion by 2020. Source: WinterGreen Research.

  • Multi-purpose mobile platforms - A strongly growing sector will be mobile platforms for general use. Service robot suppliers estimate that about 16,000 customizable multi-purpose mobile platforms will be sold in the period 2014-2017. Source: International Federation of Robotics (IFR).


  • Logistics for a customer-driven economy - The automation of logistics services is a consequence of the need to adapt to a customer-driven economy which demands more flexibility and speed than ever before. Concepts such as omni-channel (commercial relationships through multiple online and offline channels), batch-size-1 (ever smaller and more diverse lots of goods), and real-time (maximum immediacy in all production processes), now characterize the needs of customers. These demands can only be met by highly productive automated services. That is why robotics will play such a leading, and inevitable, role in the future of logistics services.

  • On the concept of "robot" - Currently there is no single definition of the term "robot" that unequivocally fits the broad diversity of existing devices, with their different sensory capabilities, their varying degrees of autonomy and mobility, and their different handling capabilities. Thus it is that we are calling such highly different devices as a self-driving vehicle, an exoskeleton, an industrial arm, a surgical support system, a drone or a 3D printer, "robots". According to the definition we might choose, most of these devices could not properly be called robots. But technology is advancing faster than the human ability to classify the reality that surrounds us, and the interconnectivity of the advances being made is greater and greater all the time, which, naturally, causes some confusion. It is not likely that we will arrive at a clear agreement on what exactly a robot is (and what it is not), so that the word itself may cease to have a clear meaning as such, and therefore the different devices, as they become more fully integrated into our everyday lives, will get to be called not by their technological name, but by the name of the function they perform. In the meantime, the bon mot coined by Joseph Engelberg, pioneer of the robotics industry, will continue to ring true: "I can’t define a robot, but I know one when I see one."

  • More intelligence for AGVs - Car manufacturers have predicted that it will be a decade or so before completely autonomous vehicles are available to the general public, but in industrial and logistics environments self-driving technology has been a reality for some years already. This can be explained, on the one hand, by the greater simplicity of the regulations with regard to private rather than public spaces, and on the other by the reduced likelihood of accidents when it is goods rather than people that are being transported. Especially in the hospital sector, which has suffered heavy budget cuts in recent years, the presence of Autonomous Ground Vehicles (AGVs) is spreading rapidly. The evolution of logistics AGVs, for both indoors and outdoors work, is marked by three main qualities: more intelligence, more autonomy, and a greater ability to operate in swarming. Their enhanced intelligence allows them to move about safely in different environments thanks to sensors and sophisticated machine-vision systems; their greater autonomy allows them to operate without human intervention, and with longer battery life; and their capacity for swarming allows for the building of more flexible, scalable robotic systems which are better adapted to the needs of a customer-driven economy. These new AGVs are called AIVs (Autonomous Intelligent Vehicles).

  • Industrial robots: dexterous, collaborative and connected - In distribution centers industrial robots are already performing tasks such as palletizing, depalletizing and bin-picking. The evolution of these robots is fostering the so-called “smart factory”, with more intelligent, more skilled and more secure robots that are connected with one another and with machines and people through the cloud. These collaborative robots, which have intrinsic safety mechanisms that allow them to work close to people without protective cages, were first developed by startups, but now all the major manufacturers are also bringing out their own models. FANUC has recently introduced its CR-35iA, the first collaborative robot for what we might call "heavy lifting", with its impressive 35 kg (77 lbs) payload, which is much bigger than that of its collaborative competitors. In the IoE and big data fields, KUKA has announced a partnership with Microsoft to use its cloud technology with the LBR iiwa robot. The analysis of the data collected from the activity of the connected robot itself will allow problems to be detected, processes to be optimized, and the efficiency of the supply chain to be improved as a result.

  • 3D printing as a business model - Additive manufacturing, otherwise known as 3D printing, is a disruptive technology which will affect all sectors of industry, as well as professional and domestic services. In the fields of logistics and distribution, we are beginning to see examples of the application of additive manufacturing not only in the optimization of the manufacturing process itself and of the services it supports, but also as a new business model. UPS already provides end-to-end 3D printing at over 100 UPS stores, a service which is aimed at SMEs and entrepreneurs. Meanwhile Amazon has applied for a patent for a new concept called "anticipatory delivery". This is based on a truck which incorporates 3D printing technology in such a way that certain merchandise can be printed during the delivery process itself, thus avoiding the need to keep stocks in store, and so offering more personalized services to customers in real time.

  • Drone-based delivery systems as complementary - The delivery of goods by drones makes more sense when it is seen not as a replacement for current transportation systems but as a complement to these in circumstances where they are less efficient or nonexistent: for services to remote locations or to sparsely populated areas without transport infrastructure, for the urgent delivery of medicines in emergencies, etc. In Europe the DHL Parcelcopter has been operating since last year in the North Sea, making regular flights to the island of Juist, 12 km from the German coast. For its part Swiss Post has announced that it will start its own delivery service with drones next summer, in collaboration with the robot manufacturers Matternet. Meanwhile in the United States, the FAA has authorized Amazon to begin testing its own drone-delivery systems. Such trials, in as real environments as possible, are necessary to evaluate the possibilities of the technology and its dangers and drawbacks, as well as to shape the legal framework that will regulate its more widespread use in the future. The question is no longer whether we will see such drone-messengers in action, but when we will see them and what specific transportation services they will provide.

  • Connected cars and last-mile delivery - Last-mile delivery is one of the challenges that the automation of transport systems has yet to resolve. In the meantime logistics companies are experimenting with initiatives that fall more or less halfway between the human and the automated models. Amazon, DHL and Audi, for example, are collaborating in a revolutionary delivery system that will put paid for packages directly into the trunk of the the customer’s car, wherever it might be parked. In making the purchase, the customer specifies the location of his or her vehicle. Armed with this information, the robot-carrier gets once-off, keyless access to the trunk, and only to the trunk, in order to leave the packages there. The passcode is only active for a short period, and cancels itself as soon as the trunk is closed. The client is informed of the operation’s progress through alerts to his or her mobile. The private car thus becomes an integrated element in the delivery service chain. The system will begin testing in Munich, Germany, in the coming weeks, with a small group of Audi drivers. Meanwhile, Volvo is also experimenting with this concept, and is expected to announce its own tests in Sweden soon.