A Brief about the Interaction of Two Dissimilar Technologies that Converge at the Forklift

As forklifts begin to emerge from being the last frontier of technology change in the warehouse, an evolution begins to take place at the most unexpected but most logical place:  The Intelligent Forklift. Understanding this convergence opens a new era for those technologies that are dependent on the data collection activities that are resident on the forklift.

The term Smart “x” is the new standard when referring to cars, phones, hospital beds and now forklifts.  Each has their own set of circumstances that qualify for this honor.  The forklift and its constituents are our primary focus in this primer. Taking a closer look at those players, we have the following:

Forklift Manufacturer – Many players in this arena answer the call of electric vs. gas, stationary vs. mobile, manned vs. unmanned, etc.  There are many companies participating in this portion of the market:  Crown, Raymond, Jungheinrich, Hyster, Caterpillar, just to name a few.  All supplying the basic functionality of a powered industrial truck used to lift and move materials short distances.

Vehicle Monitoring Technology Partners:  There are several activities being covered by this curriculum.  These devices are used to track OSHA requirements for the drivers or the lift itself.  It can also monitor the driver by way of a small localized camera. Some products can give the exact coordinates of the lift within the warehouse.   Another monitor can track the inner workings of the lift through the can bus common to most lifts.  This can include maintenance records, driving habits and warranty information.  Key participants are TotalTraxx, ID Systems, and Keytrol.

Product Tracking Technology Partners:  This area is focused on the products that are being moved and handled by the forklift.  In order to do this, the lift is equipped with a variety of hardware:  RFID reader, scanner, scales, printers, power converters, and a vehicle mounted computer with some sort of warehouse management software.  50% of the total supply chain companies exist today in order to support these various pieces of equipment.

Vehicle Mounted Computer:  The VMT has always been and even more so today, the device that gathers all of the various data inputs communicates it to other parts of the company.  Traditionally, this data has mostly been the Product Tracking type. With the onset of more Vehicle Monitoring Technology, the VMT takes on yet another data collection and dissemination role.  There are a variety of participants in this sector of the market:  Motorola, Honeywell, Glacier Computer, Dap, and Xplore.  Given the new influx of rugged tablets as a platform for data collection, Glacier Computer is one of the last remaining manufacturers whose focus is primarily on forklift computer terminals.

The Technology Coordinator: If the VMT is the tool to collect and disseminate the data, there needs to be a quarterback to determine what goes where and how it is delivered to the customer.  This is the true essence of the “Intelligent Forklift”.  This quarterbacking of sorts needs to have the insight of all curriculums and have the ability to deliver what the customer wants and the way they want to see the data.  Not only is the technology being gathered coming from two dissimilar functions, but the data needs to be delivered to several different departments within the customer’s operation.  The material handling departments are interested in the Product Data.  The Vehicle data may be of interest to the safety department or operations.  Swisslog is one company that has found a means of capturing both technologies:  Product and Vehicle, and deliver it back to the customer in their preferred manner.

No product better represents Glacier’s rugged computer and rugged tablet expertise and experience than the forklift-mounted computer. Years of development and attention to customer feedback have yielded the reliable, adaptable forklift computer systems that provide maximum efficiency for warehouse operations and any other place a lift may be used. The more challenging the environment, the more reason to use a Glacier Computer rugged computer.

Select from an array of mounting options that accommodate either sit down or stand up platforms for forklifts and reach trucks. Consider a range of power supply alternatives, options for screen size and brightness, and input and output connections. Find safety features such as automatic screen blanking that minimize distractions while the forklift is in use. Expect durability without sacrificing performance from our rugged computer products.

With the right hardware in place, onboard operators—their credentials verified by the system—will gain access to picking and routing instructions, messaging, and GPS and active asset locating. The result is an integrated fleet with real-time knowledge of inventory and where it’s headed.

The benefits of enhancing the lift’s value are appreciated internally, throughout the company to many people and departments … and externally to both customers and vendors.

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Intelligent Forklifts Reshape the Warehouse

Modern intelligent forklifts include diagnostics that allow the equipment to signal when it needs to be serviced, speed controls, anti-slip technology that monitors wheel spin and improve traction on slick floors, collision detection, fork speed optimization, and more.

Intelligent forklifts promote new process flows in the warehouse.  When integrated to a WMS, the forklift’s fork and be raised or lowered much quicker. The WMS directs a forklift to a pick location. Once at the location, the forklift knows whether the pallet to be picked is being stored at a height of three feet, six feet, or whatever. The operator pushes a button on the console and the forks move at the maximum safe speed, a speed considerably faster than the operator would be apt to move them.

Speed controls can be used to help ensure safety. For example, RFID tags placed in the floor can signal the forklift that this is a busy section of a warehouse traversed by humans. The forklift automatically knows it cannot exceed a set speed, for example two miles per hour, and the governor automatically limits the top speed to two mph in those sections of the warehouse.

In mixed case picking, forklifts can integrate with pickers wearing voice systems, follow them up an aisle, lift the pallet to the correct ergonomic height for picking based upon the location of the inventory in the warehouse racking, and then, when ordered to do so, autonomously (without a human driver) make the trip to a shipping dock for unloading.

The most intelligent forklifts today are built with real-time location systems that allow drivers to proceed to a specified location and pick up (or put down) a load without the need for the driver to scan the location to prove that they have picked up (or delivered) the right load. This solution is designed for full pallet moves in either a warehouse with racks or a bulk warehouse in which pallets are stacked on top of each other.

When logistics professionals have thought about warehouse management (WMS) and warehouse control systems (WCS), we have traditionally visualized a WCS as the system controlling the move logic for conveyors, sortation devices, carousals and other forms of stationary material handling.  We have not seen a WCS as playing a role in controlling/influencing fork lift moves.  But a forklift that integrates through a control layer to some of the logic in a WMS to move its forks faster and more efficiently is engaged in a MOVE activity. That means intelligent forklifts need to be part of a larger warehouse control solution.

p2English: Forklift Warehouse (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
In an era of distributed intelligence, a robotic revolution, and an environment in which new forms of “goods-to-man” automation are arising, it is inevitable that we will see value migrate from certain types of solution providers to others. Value is beginning to migrate toward more mobile (non-bolted down) forms of material handling used in goods-to-man processes.

WMS and material handling suppliers that can provide WCS solutions that can treat a forklift as an advanced form of automation, allow companies to add new forms of automation while protecting the WMS upgrade path, and provide logic that helps optimize throughput (even in warehouses where bottlenecks may shift over time between manual and material handling system choke points), will be the winners in this brave new world.