DHL Supply Chain facility is showcasing how automation, humans can coexist

Located in central Ohio, Carhartt facility offers a peak at a modern omnichannel logistics operation

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Nestled close to the geographic center of Ohio sits one of the busiest supply chain regions in North America. Columbus, Ohio, and its surrounding communities are no secret to logistics professionals who use the region to bring goods into the country and shuttle them throughout the country.

Ohio boasts the seventh largest economy in the U.S. and a workforce of 1.2 million people. Roughly 151 million people are within a one-day drive of the region and its Foreign Trade Zone ranked 12th of 200 such U.S. locations in 2021, moving $9.7 billion worth of goods that year.

The Columbus area is home to Rickenbacker International Airport, one of the few (primarily) cargo focused airports in the world. Fewer than 300,000 passengers fly out of the airport, primarily via Allegiant Air flights and a stream of private passenger planes. Both Norfolk Southern and CSX operate double-stacked rail services in the region, with direct access to East Coast ports.

Convenient is but one word. The Columbus region is roughly 350 miles to Chicago, 560 to Atlanta, and 530 to New York, making it a logical location for distribution.

Ohio’s growing logistics landscape

And it has thrived, with new warehouses being built as fast as the materials for them can be brought into the region. One Columbus, which is responsible for helping bring in industry in an 11-county region around Columbus, said the region ranks in the top 10 regions in the country almost annually, and in 2022, there were 479 projects of at least $1 million (or those creating at least 20 jobs or adding 20,000 square feet of new floor area) in the area, third in the country.

Intel, in 2022, announced it would build a $20 billion semiconductor plant in the region, creating 10,000 direct and construction jobs. The impact is expected to go far beyond that, though, as many smaller suppliers are expected to take up residence in the region.

Supply Chain Management Review was recently invited to the region, visiting Rickenbacker and a Carhartt facility operated by DHL Supply Chain facility in nearby Canal Winchester. The purpose of the visit, which was for select media and investors, was to showcase some of the technology DHL Supply Chain is installing to improve the efficiency of the Carhartt facility, and its global facilities overall.

The facility opened in May 2021, the first of five warehouses DHL Supply Chain will ultimately operate on behalf of Carhartt. The warehouse is an example of what facilities will look like moving forward: automation supporting humans, and designed to address omnichannel expectations.

Omnichannel is now a must

“By now, almost every customer needs an e-commerce channel next to their other channels,” explained Oscar deBok, CEO of DHL Supply Chain. “Every channel has different (needs), so it is more difficult” than it appears to combine all channels in a single facility.

DHL, with a 6.8% market share in the global contract logistics market, expects to spend some $500 million in capital this year on its operations, much of that in adding automation to its facilities.

Markus Voss, CIO, said DHL is adopting a philosophy of collaboration between automation and humans as it offers more flexibility and the ability to scale.

“(The solution) needs to be suited to the specific customer,” he said, noting that DHL has more than 5,000 projects currently live.

Automation improves employee productivity 70%

DHL research has found that 21% of all employee hours are spent picking, with 10% focused on loading and unloading. To help make these jobs easier on the employees, and more efficient to meet modern e-commerce demands, the company is focusing on deploying technology. For instance, Voss said that 10% of all picks are now completed with “assistive picking robots” (about 4,000 Locus Robotics autonomous mobile robots) leading to a 70% employee productivity increase and an 80% decrease in training time.

The company displayed several additional technologies in Canal Winchester, including autonomous forklifts from Crown Equipment (watch it in action on the Trucking Talk YouTube channel) that are used to unload trailers, an autonomous pallet unloader from Fox Robotics, and the impressive Boston Dynamics’ Stretch robot (watch it in action on the Trucking Talk YouTube channel), which is capable of lifting individual boxes from a trailer and placing them on a conveyor belt.

But, to alleviate fears that robots are replacing the human workers, Kraig Forman, president of e-commerce, said the Carhartt facility employs 380 people that work alongside the robots. The use of data is also helping make the facility more efficient, with the use of warehouse analytics resulting in a 30% increase in pick productivity.

North America is also serving as a proving ground for DHL globally, noted Sally Miller, CIO of North America and digital transformation officer.

“We are the incubator for the division globally,” she said, “and a lot of that is because the vendors (many of which are startup companies) are based here. We’re able to (easily) build these integrations into our core technologies.”

Canal Winchester is not quite the warehouse of the future as there are fully automated facilities from the likes of, but it is a glimpse of the future. And it is taking place along one of the main arteries in the logistics heartbeat of America.


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About the Author

Brian Straight, SCMR Editor in Chief
Brian Straight's Bio Photo

Brian Straight is the Editor in Chief of Supply Chain Management Review. He has covered trucking, logistics and the broader supply chain for more than 15 years. He lives in Connecticut with his wife and two children. He can be reached at [email protected], @TruckingTalk, on LinkedIn, or by phone at 774-440-3870.

View Brian's author profile.


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