Automating the warehouse
Plant Handling’s Dilyan Alexiev explains why driverless forklifts are essential for ports of tomorrow
Driverless forklifts have been making waves in the material handling industry for a while now. But are robot forklifts a thing to get excited about yet, or is the technology just a gimmick?
Driverless forklifts are best suited to repetitive movement and order picking. These machines also offer an ideal solution in high-density operations, saving space in terminal warehousing. These automated forklifts can be programmed to perform a multitude of tasks that are specifically tailored to a terminal’s needs.
With an increased demand for productivity and safety in the industry, automated material handling solutions seem like an obvious solution. A transition from driven to driverless trucks can increase safety, as well as productivity in terms of fewer accidents and more accurate delivery.
Today’s driverless forklift trucks, a growing trend in material handling automation, are pushing the limits of earlier designs, which were unsuitable for many sites and too expensive for all but the largest organisations to invest in.
One of the key concerns about driverless forklifts is the threat of collisions with unexpected obstacles. The latest breed of automated forklift trucks solve this problem thanks to built-in sensor technology, which eliminates the need for guide wires or other apparatus installed at the terminal itself. Instead, the built-in sensor is programmed internally and the sensor can react in the moment to sudden obstacles.
Driverless forklifts also reduce the number of stops usually made by human operators. They can also be synchronised to keep up efficient traffic flow in a way that only automated systems can. The increased productivity in areas of repetitive operation, such as dockside material handling, saves not only time but also money as fewer goods are likely to be damaged during the tasks for which driverless forklifts are most useful.
No driver means less risk of death, injury, or inventory loss, but it also means no need for shift changeovers, lunch breaks or holidays. Driverless lift trucks can run day and night, stopping only for refuelling or maintenance. So even though driverless lift trucks can't cut corners - like manual lift trucks can - and operate more slowly, they can increase productivity by way of continuous operation.
In terminals running 24/7, relying on overtime and double shifts, tiredness can lead to mistakes. Driverless forklifts come into their own here as improvements can really be seen at times like this, when the reduction of human strain from long shifts and repetitive tasks leads to sustained quality of productivity.
Accidents in the workplace cost money and worse, can cost lives. Statistics indicate that lift truck accidents cause at least one fatality every six weeks in the UK, giving forklift operators one of the most dangerous jobs in the country.
As such, it stands to reason that separating humans and manual handling equipment reduces the potential for accidents, especially when you consider that driver error is the primary cause of forklift accidents.
In addition to preventing driver error, driverless forklifts allow for the unmanned lifting of extreme loads - a dangerous operation for any operator, or those nearby.
The human element
That being said, there is still value in human operators in an automated warehouse. There are also manual operations that do not fit with the operation of AGV driverless forklifts. To optimise your autonomous operations, you need to have a strict and clearly defined schedule. This improves your workflow and streamlines operations.
The downside is that driverless solutions don't react well to ad hoc requests and sudden changes. The rigidity of efficiency comes at the cost of flexibility. Manual trucks allow operators to change plans on the fly and reprioritise much faster than automated systems.
Human operators are far more capable of identifying issues in the immediate environment and any problems with picking orders. If an order, upon inspection, is clearly incorrect, an automated system won't know, as it's just looking at numbers, but a human operator can assess and make judgements on pick choices that a driverless forklift cannot.
For obstacle detection, the historical contact-sensitive mechanical bumpers as well as the traditional laser scanner used today both have limitations – some do not detect hanging objects that a human would see, so the technology still has a way to go.
But while driven trucks are more flexible than driverless trucks, they are also involved in more accidents. Ultimately, reliable and standardised material handling solutions that prevent accidents are important to achieving high productivity and safety. While today’s driverless trucks are ideally suited to repetitive movement and order picking with little chance of unexpected changes, technology is getting smarter all the time, so when you're looking to replace your old forklift trucks, consider an automated solution.
Dilyan Alexiev is director of Plant Handling Limited, specialist stockist and exporter of second-hand forklifts.
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