Since the industrial revolution, we’ve been working on advancing the way that we do, well, almost anything. We’ve moved into a more streamlined, simplified and often automated way of working, especially in business.
Industrial workplaces such as warehouses demand this kind of efficiency which is why talk of robot forklifts has inevitably arisen. Certainly, since around the 50s, automated systems have been a part of day-to-day activities – such as automated guided vehicles (AGVs).
AGVs already require no human interaction and can move stock and such things around the warehouse without assistance. They can load and unload materials without the need for human intervention and can complete horizontal and vertical movements. These types of vehicles can work in extremely complex environments and employ highly engineered solutions to intelligently move mobile equipment around. They’ve come a long way since they originated and some even have forklift attachments that use laser technology to retrieve pallets.
But will we see a progression to driverless forklifts?
Well, obviously, we don’t want to see a world in which a forklift driver job may be obsolete; gone the way of cassette tapes, floppy disks and personal pagers. However, the technology has already been developed.
Seegrid, a company in Pittsburgh, has pioneered a vision technology which takes 3 pictures per second to develop a comprehensive map of its route, as well as storing up to 25 miles of travel paths in its memory. This technology can be applied to industrial mobile equipment to automate horizontal transport of materials.
This would allow costs to be reduced but can only manage a relatively low complexity of repetitive horizontal movements. With order picking processes or stock management, human forklift drivers would have to perform the vertical putaways so there is still a high degree of human interaction with the machine.
There are some other issues that are being faced too.
Logistical problems can arise due to the high level of human, machine, software, and wireless communication integration and interaction that is needed. Ensuring the whole process is working at 100% efficiency and safety can be tricky.
Finding a solution to enable multiple vehicles to pass each other on the same aisle whilst in operation is tough and current warehouse measurements may not allow for it in some cases. Again, a human override system would need to be put in place in the event that vehicles needed to pass each other and couldn’t.
With any system that you implement, you can expect to experience some latency. But this can see a drop in productivity. Just a 5-second delay could result in a decrease in productivity by around 20%. So even though you could cut costs by implementing the system, it may end up costing more in the long-run. Absolute certainty of no latency would need to be established.
To summarise, there is obviously a big difference between AGVs and driverless forklifts and whilst the technology is still quite new, it seems to be promising. The great thing about the technology is that even if “robot forklifts” do become the new norm, there will still be jobs for people who will need to be trained to control them – just not drive them.