Overcome the Fork in the Road to Automation

The decision that will shape the future of your distribution center


All roads lead to automation. At least that is one way to interpret the results of a 2012 Crown Equipment survey that asked more than 300 material handling professionals to identify the biggest challenges facing their organizations in the next five years. Of those challenges, more than 70 percent named reducing costs, followed by implementing new technology (35 percent), finding qualified labor (33 percent) and speeding product movement (22 percent).

Notice the theme? Each of the major challenges identified is related to automation. The question is not if automation will be adopted in the distribution center—but when and how. With all the attention automation currently gets, many supply chain professionals wonder if the answer to when is now.

Although warehouse automation has a number of components, for the purposes of this article I’ll focus on the automation of pallet-based processes, or forklift automation. This is an area that can have a major impact—either positive or negative—on warehouse operations. The decisions made on this technology can literally shape the future of your distribution centers. First, let’s look at the current state of the technology.

AGVs for the warehouse

Automatic guided vehicles (AGVs) have been used successfully in manufacturing but have yet to gain a significant foothold in warehousing and distribution. In 2011, they represented less than one percent of total forklift sales. Advances in technology, such as faster microprocessors and improved sensors, drive increased interest but adoption is not progressing as fast as many expected. Everyone is talking about automated vehicles, but few are actually using them. Why?

In manufacturing, AGVs typically transport materials from one manufacturing station to the next or from an assembly line to shipping, moving back and forth over the same well-defined path with no need to navigate around other vehicles. The tasks performed are predictable and repeatable and AGVs handle them well.

While some tasks in warehousing and distribution are similar to those which AGVs perform in manufacturing—such as moving full pallets to shipping—in general the processes that forklifts must support in warehousing are more complex and workloads are less predictable. Forklifts need to be able to go anywhere in the warehouse, often traveling to multiple locations to fulfill a single order while navigating around other vehicles and workers in the process.

This complexity mandates a much higher degree of vehicle intelligence and the use of more sophisticated guidance technology than AGVs in manufacturing employ. It also requires greater flexibility. A vehicle that can only travel one speed over a single path becomes a bottleneck during periods where workloads change significantly.

As a result, a new type of vehicle emerged that is distinguished by its ability to operate in both automatic and manual modes. This provides warehouse personnel with the ability to adapt to changes in processes or workloads by shifting vehicles from automatic to manual mode or vice-versa. Currently, these “dual-mode” vehicles are produced by retrofitting manual forklifts with automation technology. This represents an interim phase in the technology that will eventually be displaced by forklifts designed specifically for warehouse automation.

Moving toward an automated future

Based on current technology, it isn’t hard to envision a future in which automated vehicles handle the base workload of the warehouse, supplemented by operator-driven, dual-mode vehicles during peak periods or handling special tasks. In this future state, the two types of vehicles navigate around each other to perform the necessary tasks as efficiently as possible. Costs go down, warehouse workers are more productive and products move faster through the supply chain. But that vision is still in the future and attempting to achieve it with the current generation of technology can create issues that ultimately delay the realization of the long-term benefits.

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