DHL, Microsoft, and Blue Yonder Launch Management System for Robotics to Accelerate Deployments and Build Efficiencies of Scale

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3Q 2020 | IN-5871

In late June 2020, DHL launched a new plug and play robotics platform in collaboration with Blue Yonder and Microsoft that will give customers more flexibility in selecting and integrating different robotics vendors into a single solution. Powered by Microsoft Azure’s Internet of Things (IoT) and cloud platform services, the robotics system significantly reduces the onboarding of new automation devices into warehouse facilities and allows for scalable operations to meet individual business needs.

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DHL, Blue Yonder, and Azure Create Robot Platform


In late June 2020, DHL launched a new plug and play robotics platform in collaboration with Blue Yonder and Microsoft that will give customers more flexibility in selecting and integrating different robotics vendors into a single solution. Powered by Microsoft Azure’s Internet of Things (IoT) and cloud platform services, the robotics system significantly reduces the onboarding of new automation devices into warehouse facilities and allows for scalable operations to meet individual business needs.

The platform is designed to be an integrated warehouse management system specifically tailored to robots, and will be referred from this point on as the Robot Warehouse Management System (RWMS). The RWMS will purportedly allow customers to standardize operations data for various types of robots. This interoperability issue is very pertinent to DHL itself. As a deployer of warehouse solutions, DHL has partnered with a wide variety of mobile robotics vendors, including 6 River Systems, Fetch Robotics, MIR, Seegrid, and AvidBots, for material handling and cleaning. The RWMS will rely on Blue Yonder’s Luminate Artificial Intelligence (AI) and Machine Learning (ML) platform and will utilize Microsoft Azure’s IoT cloud services. The RWMS works by offering the end user a selection of verified robot vendors and then using AI to harmonize the onboarding process for the heterogenous fleet.

The platform is being piloted in Madrid, and DHL spokespeople have claimed that it has cut programming and integration time by 60%. It is not clear what the baseline here is, and this is a pilot test specifically situated at a DHL site. In the long term, DHL hopes the RWMS will create a 90% reduction in programming and integration time.

Most importantly, RWMS is being described as running on a Software-as-a-Service (SaaS) business model when it is commercialized and will rely heavily on building a collective of different robot suppliers. The inclusion with DHL is vital, as every robot manufacturer will be highly inclined to be included in the giant company’s automation efforts. Many robot solution vendors themselves are attempting to build the necessary software, operations and analytics platforms so that they can enjoy the benefits of being a platform, but they lack the enormous resources and so will have to collaborate with others. This is certainly the case with Microsoft Azure and their competitor AWS Robomaker, who are set to be of pivotal importance in orchestrating and managing the vast troves of data captured by autonomous systems.

Robot Platforms: Partnerships the Basis for the Twenty-First Century Zaibatsu


In the long term, the RWMS and the partnership that enables this will be increasingly commonplace within the wider robotics industry. For Automated Guided Vehicles (AGVs), Autonomous Mobile Robots (AMRs), cobots, and advanced industrial automation solutions to really scale up beyond where they are now, there has to much better standardization and interpretability than what is currently the norm. For robotics companies to reach their lofty claims, there need to be more centralized platforms that take the logic of RWMS and apply it to a larger scale.

Unlike the robotics world, the digital world is ruled by platforms and largely monopolized by a few key companies (with different players carving up particular jurisdictions). Amazon dominates Western e-commerce, Facebook dominates social media, and Google dominates search engines and the smartphone market through the Android Operating System (OS). The development of these industries into highly centralized ecosystems with a select few powerful monopolies was due to two things: economies of scale and/or low fixed costs. The former meant that as more users migrated to Facebook the platform became more valuable to be on; likewise, the more merchants sold their wares on Amazon, the more traffic migrated to the e-commerce giant. Low fixed costs were just as important. There may be additional infrastructure investments, but once the digital platform is built, the cost of expanding it decreases markedly. These rules do not apply to robotics, because the necessary software infrastructure is not in place to build efficiencies with more machines. At this point in time, more robots mean a considerable expansion in the number of engineers necessary to operate them. Deploying robots doesn’t get cheaper the more you do it.

The current fragmentation of the robotics market puts strict limits on potential growth, increasing productivity, and deploying effective technology solutions quickly. Technology fragmentation is often quoted as the single biggest challenge hindering the deployment of robotics in enterprise. In certain cases, the cost of implementing these technologies could be as high as the cost of the infrastructure itself, which is why so few small vendors can access robots. Even major companies, like General Motors (GM) in the eighties and Tesla more recently, have been left disappointed by the lack of efficiency gains from massive expenditure into automation. This problem of efficiency is where the RWMS and other partnerships come in, as a 90% reduction in deployment time is necessary to get many aspiring robotics vendors into profit. Robotics platforms like RWMS will not evolve along the line of digital platforms. The ecosystem is too varied. Instead, there will be a small number of highly diversified ecosystems centered around common platforms like RWMS.

The desire of the RWMS partnership to simplify the challenges of modern automation by developing a centralized platform is echoed by futurists looking into the Industry 4.0 phenomenon. In his book The Pan-Industrial Revolution: How New Manufacturing Titans Will Transform the World, Professor Richard D’Aveni argues that emerging technologies, and the need for platforms to facilitate their potential, will serve as the catalyst for a new wave of manufacturing conglomerates. D’Aveni surmises that the era of conglomeration will return in order for companies to implement all the benefits of Industry 4.0, as the current ecosystem is much too specialized and lacks interoperability between different vendors. More and more robotics players will thus be interdependent on key platforms for competencies like robotic fleet management, analytics, and so on. This can be seen not only with RWMS, but also with the recent partnership between vendor Realtime Robotics and Siemens’ Digital Industries software division. In that case, a robotics vendor is utilizing Siemen’s Tecnomatix simulation platform in order to simplify the programming of automated processes. Initiatives like this will gradually lead to the formation of much larger industrial collectives, in which many smaller vendors feed into one of two large conglomerations, with industrial giants like Siemens and logistics vendors like DHL all hosting platforms for robotics companies (many of which will exclusively partner with one larger player). In this, cloud service vendors like Microsoft Azure will be ever present. Instead of being like the vertical integration of the 1950s, future robotics collectives will resemble the Zaibatsu conglomerates of Japan: highly diversified, with many companies working interdependently on a few robot-related platforms, all facilitated by larger players in telco, cloud, and IoT.

This trend, in only its embryonic stages, has the potential to massively simplify the technology acquisition, deployment, and maintenance process, shifting robots from a niche technology limited to the most well-resourced firms to a general-purpose technology that can automate entire economies.

Join a Collective


For prospective robotics vendors, it is essential to build connections with larger technology vendors. This can be done through a committee, as in the case of Sarcos Robotics and Microsoft Azure, or it can be more formal, like RWMS. Ultimately, partnerships with companies that can speed up deployment will become crucial in the coming 24 months, and companies should align themselves with the collective that can get their solution to the most customers in the shortest time, and that has the resources and connections to generate efficiencies in the long term. There will be real scrutiny on the ability of robot solutions to be profitable and have a short ROI, so develop the strongest partnerships you can.

There are growing examples of major manufacturers and technology vendors teaming up to simplify things for end users, and very often this is incubated in the original manufacturer before commercialization. Recently, BMW announced it was partnering with Nvidia’s Isaac robotics Software Development Kit (SDK) to develop its own roster of autonomous machines, which are expected to be sold externally to customers in e-commerce and warehousing once they have been refined in BMW’s operations. This is a further example of two large entities partnering to build a long-term automation offering. When an Original Equipment Manufacturer (OEM) like BMW goes down this route, rather simply buying from the long list of robot manufacturers, it highlights the weakness of the currently fragmented robotics landscape. Some vendors see the future of the robotics industry as based on collectives, and have made a platform play central to their growth strategies. Chief among them is Teradyne, which has been notable in acquiring robotics companies over the last five years. All of Teradyne’s robot brands, including UR, MiR, and AutoGuide, focus on designing highly modular, flexible robots that can be tailored to the widest possible audience. They have built their business on a vast network of distributors but have increasingly used platforms like UR+ to plug in individual software, end-effector, and sensor vendors, so that customers can have the widest range of possible solutions. This strategy essentially creates a cooperative of tiny specialists, a large network of distributors and system integrators, and center them around one major hardware developer. The end result has seen UR dominate the cobot space for years while MIR and Auto Guide show real popularity in the nascent industrial mobile robot market.

The RWMS represents the early formation of what will become much larger robot collectives. To succeed, robot vendors and end users alike are going to have to rely more on these prospective platforms and, in doing so, will unshackle themselves from the very severe limitations placed on the robotics industry.