Manufacturing in the Age of COVID-19 - Part 4
During uncertain times, humans turn to stories. We look for reassurance, for inspiration, and for a sense of community; to know we’re not alone in our experience and to understand how others are coping. With that in mind, we launched a series of blog posts to share the stories of manufacturers around the world addressing the COVID-19 pandemic; to keep employees safe and their businesses viable.
Our hope is that we can all continue to collaborate—from a safe distance—to care for and learn from each other.
DCL Logistics’ Chief Revenue Officer, Brian Tu:
As the pandemic started spreading this spring, DCL Logistics, a third-party logistics company headquartered in Fremont, California, USA, with fulfillment centers throughout the US saw a 30 percent increase in business due to large spike in demand for DCL’s customers’ products and Amazon deprioritizing certain products, causing many brands to turn to DCL for direct-to-consumer fulfillment. In this Q&A, the company’s Chief Revenue Officer, Brian Tu, discusses how the company’s cobots played a pivotal in the DCL Logistics’s ability to handle the sudden uptick in demand.
Tell us how you run your operations today vs. before the pandemic:
This is definitely the most extreme crisis anyone has ever seen. When Amazon announced that they would be prioritizing inbound shipments of household staples, medical supplies, and other high demand products, a lot of Amazon sellers scrambled to find alternative sales and fulfillment options. Many of these sellers turned to DCL Logistics and we had to adapt quickly to meet their needs.
Before the pandemic, we would hire temporary workers to come in and help us with the increase in orders. Keeping our existing employees safe, however, was our number one priority and we wanted to avoid having them come into contact with other people than the small group they work with every day. So we were more cautious with bringing in more temporary associates. A couple of weeks before the pandemic hit, we had fortunately just installed our second collaborative robot in our Fremont facility, integrating it into a conveyor system. So with our new automated cells and some reorganizing of existing staff resources, we were able to meet the 30 percent increase in demand without hiring more people.
The introduction of the cobots have also in general decreased the amount of people needed. In the past, it took five people at DCL Logistics to manage a conventional manual picking process: one to pick the order, one to bring it to the line, one to verify it, one to kit it, and the last person to pack and ship it. The robotic system can do within two hours what a team of five people would do in an entire day.
This case study shows how DCL Logistics has deployed UR cobots in its fulfillment center in Fremont, California. It was shot right before the pandemic, since then, DCL extended the conveyor system, adding a second UR10e cobot to the work cell.
Did you have to restructure your production line to minimize contagion risks or provide personal protection equipment (PPE) to protect employees?
We keep all non-essential business employees at home to avoid any unnecessary contact in our facilities. All people entering our building are subject to a temperature check. Everybody wears masks 100 percent of the time, and we have put up plexiglass around the fulfillment line while also placing workers 6 ft (2 meters) apart.
At DCL Logistics, all people entering the facility are subject to temperature checks and are required to wear face masks to help prevent the spread of Covid-19.
How do you communicate necessary production changes to your workforce, and how are they handling it?
It has really boosted employee morale to witness the steps we are taking to keep them safe. With unemployment rates at an all-time high, our staff has also been grateful to be able to keep reporting safely to work.
DCL Logistics’ efforts to keep employees safe during the pandemic has boosted employee morale
How do you make sure your products reach the end customers on time?
Because of the new robotic systems and our ability to quickly reorganize our labor resources, we were one of the only fulfillment centers out there able to handle the increase in orders without changing our SLAs (Service Level Agreement) of “in by noon, ship the same day.” We’re currently shipping upwards of 30,000 packages per day, seven days a week.
This has turned out to be a major differentiator for our company during the pandemic. Our customers were completely amazed by this and kept telling us ‘we can’t believe you guys are still up and running’ – it was even to the point that they would send our employees catered lunches and gifts as a token of their appreciation.
Are you relying more on automation now than before?
Out robotic-assisted fulfilment system has been built to manage more complex order demands that require multiple picks per order across a wide array of SKUs (Stock Keeping Unit, a scannable bar code). Since the introduction of robotics into our production environment, the quality results have been near perfect with a 99.99% order accuracy, slightly above our company wide standard of 99.80%. For the last 20 years, DCL has been ISO 9001 certified, so the rigidity of the robotics and their related processes requires adherence to an even higher level of quality standard, starting from SKU setup to order ship.
Senior software engineer Walter Perchinumio, (left) and Isaac Toscano, automation engineer at DCL Logistics, inspect the increased packaging flow at the company’s new conveyed system
How do you think this crisis will shape your company going forward? What are some of the lessons learned?
The number one lesson learned is that we are structurally stable, which has helped us weather the storm. Where competitors would have typically responded to an uptick in demand by simply throwing labor at it, we were able to do less with more when we augmented our current setup with robotics. - Which really was the only solution in an environment where adding labor was not something we wanted to do due to existing employee health. We’re definitely much more cognizant now on how we need to adopt autonomous automation in order to manage the situation.
Will the way you operate your business change in the long term as well?
At DCL we are always looking to adopt improvements and innovate, for our clients and for the industry overall. We’re investing heavily in automation and are planning to add two-three robotic systems in our facility in Kentucky next. Leveraging robotics even more in the future has become part of our business continuity plan.