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Technology moves quickly and touches nearly every industry in the world. Keeping up with the latest technology helps businesses stay competitive. To that end, in this article, the team at Angus Lift Trucks examines the top five trends in tech and explores how they will transform the forklift industry.

1.   Automation

Automation isn’t exactly new to the shipping and distribution industry. The implementation of the transfer machine in 1888 was the first automation landmark; however, today’s technology is launching automation into a new era.

Forklift technology has given rise to several versions of automated machines for lifting and moving. Automated Lift Trucks (ALT) learn routes and tasks from an operator who drives the machine in “learning” mode. They can then switch to automatic mode and drive themselves.

Automated Guided Vehicles (AGV) do not require an operator. They use cameras, lasers, and floor markings to navigate. AGV forklifts can perform pallet racking, gravity racking, mobile racking, drive-in racking, block-stacking, and more.

Autonomous Mobile Robots (AMR) are the most advanced of the three. They don’t require an operator or guide markings. Instead, they use artificial intelligence (AI) to learn about their environment and make adjustments accordingly.

The most well-known example of AGVs in use now is Amazon’s fleet of orange drive robots that can move a 340 kg rack of product across a warehouse floor at 5.5 km/hr.

Human “stowers” unpack goods and place them in bins on a tall yellow pod. The robots then move the pod either to a waiting position in the warehouse or to a “picker” station. A human picker takes items from the bins to pack for consumers.

Far from eliminating jobs, Amazon says implementing robots has created hundreds of thousands of them. Employment-reporting site Glassdoor currently shows over 2k open jobs for Amazon in the UK.

driverless forklifts

It’s easy to see why automation is attractive to companies. These machines can work 24/7, don’t need medical or dental benefits, and are faster and more accurate than human employees. Although the machines are expensive, they quickly pay for themselves.

They also need fuel, space, repair, and guidance. Human operators will still be needed to help teach ALTs and drive 5G remote machines. As of yet, the automated fleet can’t detect things like product spills or work on uneven floors.

When working outdoors, these automated vehicles need to withstand weather, dirt and wear. There are currently AGVs that operate outside of the controlled conditions of a warehouse. They are typically used to take materials between facilities on the same lot.

Automated forklifts aren’t likely to replace workers on a large scale anytime soon. Instead, they take on the more boring, repetitive tasks to free up workers for more nuanced work. Developers and designers are looking to the future with an eye on how these machines can work safely with humans rather than replace them.

2.   AI

Artificial Intelligence (AI) is growing by leaps and bounds since it was first presented at a conference in 1956. Since then, components have become smaller, more efficient, and more affordable. Computing technology has improved at a mind-blowing pace.

AI is being integrated with AMRs to make them more adaptive to working with people. They can detect traffic patterns in a warehouse and learn to avoid high traffic areas. They can learn and choose the most efficient routes to get from point A to point B.

AMRs can do all this without relying on wires or ground markers. That means they can be deployed immediately without extensive modification to the workspace. They’re more flexible and adaptable than either AGVs or ALTs.

AI seems to be the next stage in automation for major suppliers. Currently, the world’s largest maker of forklift trucks, Toyota, is working on four AI development projects. They plan to introduce a pallet drone, mid-lifter, ultra-lifter, and a fleet of drivers similar to Amazon’s orange AGVs called “swarm.”

the AI warehouse forklifts of the future

This is a step up from their “smart trucks,” which have been in production since 2018. Like the smart trucks, the new generation of vehicles will produce data on efficiency, shock monitoring, and performance. Managers can then use this information to streamline their operations and improve risk assessment.

The AI vehicles will also help to prevent accidents. Each year, around 1000 work-related injuries are reported to the HSA. The majority of those come from the agriculture, construction, transportation, and storage sector. This doesn’t include the dozen or so annual fatalities.

AI is supposed to reduce those numbers. Equipped with adaptive intelligence technologies, proximity warnings, and faster than human-reaction-times, these machines can respond more quickly to potential dangers.

The AI machines can also work with hazardous materials or extreme environmental conditions that pose a threat to flesh and blood workers. Then there’s the simple matter of not having as many people on the warehouse floor.

Right now, AI forklifts aren’t widespread. They’re expensive, need more testing, and could use an extensive PR outreach campaign. Automated machines are sometimes approached with suspicion by workers.

To gain more acceptance, workers and managers have to be educated. They need to learn how to interact with the machines, their capabilities and view them as tools rather than competition.

Rest assured, AI forklifts are coming and coming soon. However, they won’t immediately replace their human counterparts. As advanced as they are, they lack the interpretive abilities of the human mind. They also need fueling, repairs, and other maintenance that they can’t perform on their own.

Unlike AGVs, AI-equipped trucks don’t require a system of markers to get around. So, if they’re put to work outdoors, there’s no need to install that infrastructure first. As with the other vehicles, AI vehicles will need modification to handle outdoor conditions.

3.   5G

The world’s fifth-generation mobile network, or 5G, saw its first implementation in 2019. The four major players in the UK’s telecom industry have now all launched their 5G networks around Europe. EE was the first to lead the pack and currently has more coverage than O2, Vodafone, and Three UK. According to EE, they’re now connected in 160 towns and cities.

5G boasts much faster speeds than its predecessor, 4G. It also has higher capacity, less latency, is more unified, and better utilizes resources. The bad news is that you’ll need a new device to connect to the new system.

At first blush, one might associate 5G with cell phones and not much else. However, 5G will be a prime player in the “Internet of Things” (covered in the next section). The way it plays out in the warehouse environment is by enhancing connectivity.

5G will enable machine operators to control forklifts remotely. So, drivers can avoid the hazards of interacting with heavy equipment, oversized loads, and extreme temperatures. Like many office workers, drivers would be able to work from home.

remote driven forklifts

Global logistics provider Geodis partnered with software company Phantom Auto to recently complete their first successful remote operation of a forklift. The vehicle was physically located in France but controlled by an operator in California.

The company says remote operation will open the industry up to a more diverse workplace, inclusive of women and the disabled. One driver can also pilot different machines in different locations in the same workday.

Thailand has also conducted a successful remote forklift operation over the 5G network. The machine was located in Saraburi while the driver was sitting in Bangkok, 110 kilometers away. They were able to operate the forklift in real-time and fluidly move palettes from A to B.

The test is encouraging. Future implementation could lead to remote operator training, socially distanced working, and increase the country’s competitiveness in the industry. 5G is crucial because its fast speed and large data capacity allow a smooth connection between operator and machine.

The limitation of 5G capable devices is that they rely on the ability to connect to a 5G network. Any company hoping to implement this technology in their warehouses will have to be located somewhere that gets a strong signal. This also makes them prone to interruption if the network is down or has trouble.

Infrastructure for 5G is rapidly improving, with signal towers going up everywhere. Still, unless there are enough towers nearby to provide a signal reliably, minor weather events could disrupt operations.

Facilities located in rural areas might not yet have the towers they need to remote pilot a fleet of forklifts. Until either infrastructure or technology catches up, the broad adaptation of 5G in a distribution setting could be slow.

Major companies like Toyota, Geodis, Linde, CESAB, and Hyster can make all of the AI vehicles they may decide to. However, unless the infrastructure exists, these machines won’t make much of a difference in the industry.

4.   IoT

The “Internet of Things” is a term that’s been around for a while. It refers to objects that can connect to the internet. That includes smartwatches, TVs, surveillance systems, kitchen appliances, toys, and cars.

Most of the time, these things collect data about the user and upload that information to various entities. They also provide convenience to the user. A fitness band gathers data on how many calories the wearer burns in a day. This information can help the wearer to decide to reduce inactivity or limit food intake.

Advertisers can also use the information. If the band senses the wearer going for a jog every morning, they might receive ads for jogging shoes in their email. The band might also send information about the wearer’s morning route.

The Internet of Things can also refer to things in a closed system. It could be a home security system that connects cameras, motion sensors, and doorbells to the user’s phone. The individual devices communicate with each other and the user only.

In the warehouse, one example of IoT tech is Palletech’s smart pallets. A central plank has several sensors that send data to the cloud. Managers can then use their computers or phones to keep up with shipments.

Palletech’s central plank can send data such as the temperature, the pallet’s location, and how efficient routes and handling are. Users can see where a shipment is on a map in real-time. Recovering a stray pallet is as easy as turning on a computer.

Temperature and timeliness are particularly important in the food industry supply chain. Smart devices like Palletech’s planks can let a manager know if food is in danger of spoiling. They can also help pinpoint arrival times so receiving departments can streamline schedules.

Currently, the most widely used IoT technology in supply chain management is RFID tags. These tags contain a circuit and an antenna that transmits information to an RFID reader. Consider it a step up from barcode scanning.

Unlike barcoding, RFID tags don’t need a direct visual connection to transmit their information. Companies can use tags to track inventory, control access, prevent counterfeiting, and track personnel. RFID tags don’t smear or tear and can’t be marked out.

Combine IoT with 5G and AI, and you get a technology trifecta that boosts productivity exponentially. The possibilities here are endless. Consider a warehouse with a fleet of AI vehicles.

The AI vehicles gather and process data as they work. They can share that data to coordinate more efficient routes. That data gets processed and sent to warehouse managers via the 5G network. Managers can then implement changes in real-time.

The more integrated these three technologies become, the more reliant they will be on each other. For the system to excel, the 5G signal has to be strong and reliable. Vehicles with AI have to be supported by their human coworkers. Companies have to understand their current workflows and identify where the new technology serves them best.

 

5.   Fuel Technology

Present-day forklifts use one of three fuel sources: diesel, batteries, or liquified petroleum gas (LPG). Diesel produces exhaust and requires areas with inadequate ventilation while batteries take up valuable warehouse storage space. LPG consumes fossil fuels.

The next advancement in fuel technology for forklifts lies in hydrogen. Hydrogen fuel cells can be used to power forklifts, lift trucks, tractors, and cars. The hydrogen fuel vehicles recharge at a station just like a diesel vehicle would. Companies can install refueling stations inside the warehouse so machines can get back to work quickly.

Unlike diesel, the only byproduct of hydrogen is water. For those countries aiming to reduce their impact on the climate, hydrogen is a safe choice. While most hydrogen comes from natural gas extraction, agricultural and waste sources also exist.

The energy provided by hydrogen fuel is impressive. Compared to gasoline, it’s almost three times the power. One kilo of hydrogen contains as much energy as 2.8 kilos of gasoline. Hydrogen-powered engines don’t expel toxic fumes and don’t need workers to refuel them as often as gasoline.

Compared with electricity-powered vehicles, hydrogen goes the distance. While an electric car can typically drive for 160-320 km without recharging, a hydrogen vehicle can go nearly 500 km. They also recharge faster, in about five minutes.

Gasoline freezes at around -73 ℃ while hydrogen’s freezing point is near -250 ℃. This lower freezing point enables hydrogen-fueled vehicles to operate in colder conditions like industrial freezers.

For all of their advantages, hydrogen fuel cells remain the most expensive power option. This difference is mainly due to storage and availability concerns. While it’s not costly to produce, these concerns drive up the cost to the end-user.

Right now, about 500 hydrogen cell forklifts are in operation throughout Europe. Toyota, Linde, Hyster-Yale, STILL GmbH, and Hydrogenics are among the world’s top manufacturers. That number is likely to jump as the technology becomes more available.

At the moment, only large corporations like Amazon and ASDA can afford to implement hydrogen. Smaller warehouses and independent distributors will have to wait until the cost comes down.

In a warehouse setting, hydrogen fuel cell vehicles translate to better working conditions and less downtime. PlugPower, one producer of hydrogen fuel cells, claims they lower operational costs by 84% compared with combustion generators.

This technology is probably the least likely to put forklift drivers out of a job. Those vehicles in operation now are driven the traditional way. However, combined with AI and other automation, supply chain managers can increase productivity by operating 24/7.

Final Thoughts

What does all of this new technology mean for forklift drivers? Once they’re fully in place, the innovations could lead to a more efficient workplace, higher productivity, increased driver safety, and remote work opportunities.

Peripheral tasks like unloading trucks, fueling machines, and packing will still need to be done by human hands. Automation is good with repetitive tasks but hasn’t yet evolved for more nuanced work and high-level decision-making.

It also means that drivers will have to adapt to working with AI machines. These advances are coming, whether or not drivers want them. The faster drivers learn to see them as valuable tools, the more they can successfully utilize them.

The technologies above are changing the distribution world and will bring the industry into a new era. Until then, if you require to hire forklifts for your projects across the Midlands, Angus Lift Trucks has over 35 Years of Experience in renting forklifts in LeicestershireNottinghamshireNorthamptonshireBirminghamWarwickshireDerbyshireEast Midlands & West Midlands.