Potential problems that may be encountered are within the areas of reliability, flexibility, scalability and safety.
Reliability—Retrofitting a manual forklift with automation technology can create several vulnerabilities that lead to vehicle downtime. Sensors that hang off the vehicle, rather than being protected by the body of the truck, are susceptible to damage when the vehicle is operated in manual mode because operators aren’t accustomed to the extra clearance required by the sensors. Extra electronics are also required to integrate the automation controls with the truck’s controls and automation controls may not be designed to the same reliability standards as the truck’s controls. Finally, issues may arise about who is responsible for addressing problems that occur—the truck manufacturer or the automation provider.
Flexibility—Dual-mode trucks address the need for greater flexibility in the warehouse but the current generation of guidance systems doesn’t provide the flexibility many facilities require. A current guidance system can’t, for example, navigate around other vehicles or congestion in auto mode and is limited in its ability to make decisions, such as choosing the best path to get from point A to point B. The system may perform well supporting operators in high-volume picking through operator-controlled remote advancement or transporting product from picking to shipping. But it is limited in its ability to support other tasks to achieve the future state described previously.
Scalability—Many of the same issues that limit flexibility also apply to scalability. Vehicles may perform acceptably in limited pilot applications but have difficulty—or require a much larger investment—to scale to the entire warehouse. The lifespan of the technology can also limit scalability. Automation technologies are getting better with each new generation but not all new technologies will be compatible with what exists today. For example, if you deploy laser guidance technology and the industry standardizes on a different guidance system, you may have to replace the entire system.
Safety—To meet industry safety standards, automated vehicles must be equipped with audible warnings and lights and have built-in sensors to detect obstructions. However, these systems are rudimentary compared to the many ways operators sense their environment and make decisions. An automated vehicle compensates for its deficiencies by moving at slow speeds and shutting down whenever any obstacle is perceived. Each time the vehicle shuts down warehouse personnel must remove the obstacle and manually restart the vehicle.
If not now, when?
Forklift automation technology is advancing rapidly and the vision of multiple automated vehicles moving efficiently around the warehouse to fulfill orders will be realized. It has the potential to transform warehousing in a meaningful way.
But this technology—and the service infrastructure supporting it—is still relatively immature. It is wise to move forward cautiously. Investments in the technology can pay dividends today if tasks are well-defined; vehicles can move easily between manual and automatic mode; and service responsibility is clarified.
There is risk in trying to do too much too soon, especially if an organization isn’t well-suited to deal with issues that typically accompany early adoption of emerging technologies. Implementing automated vehicles that sit idle more than they are operational because of service issues, or that require so much support there is little return on investment, can sour executive management on future investments. In that case, the best decision may be to map out a strategy but delay implementation until the technology matures.
The major developments in this maturation will be advances in positioning and tracking technology that expand the ability of automated vehicles to navigate the warehouse; the emergence of industry standards specific to automation; and the introduction of forklifts fully purpose-built for automation.
Stay tuned—the industry is moving forward aggressively on all fronts.