Modern intelligent forklifts include diagnostics that allow the equipment to signal when it needs to be serviced, control speed, prevent slipping by monitoring wheel spin and traction on slick floors, avoid collisions – and much more.

Intelligent forklifts promote new process flows in the warehouse. When integrated to a warehouse management system (WMS), the forklift’s fork can be raised or lowered more quickly. 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 people. The forklift automatically knows it cannot exceed a set speed, for example 2 mph, and the governor automatically limits the top speed 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 materials handling. We have not seen a WCS as playing a role in controlling/influencing forklift 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.

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 materials handling used in goods-to-man processes.

WMS and materials handling suppliers providing WCS solutions which 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 materials handling system choke points) will be the winners in this brave new world.