Globally, it is estimated that there are over 5 billion pallets in circulation every day — here in the U.S. we rely on about 4.5 million manual operators for nearly all pallet movement. As those workers retire or move on to new opportunities, facilities are facing an increasing challenge in moving pallets. The past two years have permanently changed operations for the global supply chain. Managing risk and maintaining assurance of an appropriately sized work force and the continuity of profitable operations have become more difficult and complex. At the same time, consumer demand has intensified further, increasing the strain on distribution centers (DCs) and manufacturers.
The good news is that technology — in the form of the newest generation of smart, human-friendly autonomous forklifts, also known as autonomous mobile robots (AMRs) — can help solve issues around labor shortages, workflow management, efficiency, and agility. Following are five ways self-driving, intelligent forklifts can help facilities by creating more profitable operations and giving companies a competitive edge.
Extend staff and reduce labor costs. Warehouses and DCs are the workhorses of every global supply chain. Warehouse labor shortages — ranging from low-skilled, seasonal order pickers to certified, highly skilled heavy machinery operators — can significantly hinder a company’s ability to fulfill customer orders. At the same time, labor costs are rising steadily as a result of the demand for workers.
Many companies are now turning to smart automation and robotics to “virus-proof” their operations, according to industry studies from Gartner Inc. These companies are investing in technologies such as AMRs — in particular, self-driving, intelligent forklifts.
“Smart” self-driving forklifts perform tasks independently while human workers focus on higher level responsibilities. Autonomous forklifts reduce or eliminate the need for employees to perform mundane and repetitive tasks such as traversing the warehouse on manual equipment to pick orders or replenish inventory. Traditional facilities require one person for each moving forklift, whereas in facilities that adopt self-driving forklifts, one person can now oversee the work of several autonomous units. Autonomous forklifts can also work around the clock, allowing for time to recharge appropriately.
As a result of using this technology, warehouse staff are not replaced, but rather extended and freed up from dangerous, repetitive tasks to take on more interesting, higher-value work. Warehouse productivity increases, retention and job satisfaction improves, and overall labor costs are reduced.
Increase throughput. The rapid growth of e-commerce is likely to continue. According to the United Nations, e-commerce has grown by between 4% and 8% annually since 2018. During COVID-19 lockdowns, e-commerce sales in the U.S. spiked as much as 39% per quarter. That kind of sudden demand volatility has left companies scrambling to fill orders.
Self-driving forklifts help to accelerate throughput. Truly intelligent forklifts can identify areas of a facility that are frequently congested and learns to avoid those zones when planning a route to consistently get goods where they need to be, quickly. This can increase reliability on the workflows and help to avoid down-the-chain disruptions like missing a truck loading or delays.
Driverless equipment can become an extension of the workforce, helping to relieve workflow disruptions caused by lack of labor, while allowing for longer operating hours without the need to add large numbers of additional staff per shift. The equipment acts as an assistant to your human workers. Facilities that can extend operating hours using autonomous equipment now have additional time in a workday to fulfill more orders. As a result of upgrading operations with self-driving forklifts, processes are streamlined, hours can be extended, and more is going through the door — faster.
Improve workflows and efficiencies. Poor workflow means an increase in wasted downtime. In traditional facilities, when there are multiple tasks to be fulfilled, people don’t always plan out the quickest paths or select the fastest order of operations, resulting in an increase of costly empty-fork travel. Congestion in a facility can also delay the movement of goods, which can slow the fulfillment of an order.
Smart forklifts reduce “fork-empty” travel. They select the order of tasks and plan out their paths to create the most efficient route every time. Advanced equipment can communicate with each other as they work to maintain clear paths and streamline operations. Intelligent equipment like certain AMRs learn as they work and will begin to recognize patterns over time. The vehicle will then take these patterns into consideration when planning future routes. This will further increase workflow efficiencies over time. For example, if a particular part of a facility becomes congested every day at noon, the intelligent forklift will start to plan its routes to avoid this space during that time.
Unlike older technology that requires a line or path to follow when executing a task, intelligent forklifts contain a map of their environment in their programing which allows them to navigate the live environment within the facility. If the vehicle encounters an unexpected obstacle in the planned path, the forklift will maneuver around the obstacle. If the path is fully blocked, the vehicle will re-navigate to the next most efficient route. Equipment with this ability requires less attention from staff and allows workers to focus on higher-level, value-added tasks with fewer distractions.
Increase workplace safety. A traditional warehouse or DC is a physically demanding workplace. Employees are easily injured by any number of job-related occurrences, such as repetitive motion syndrome, back injuries, or forklift mishaps that can cause serious injury or death.
Workplace injuries are harmful to company morale, highly deterring to potential new employees, and are costly for a company to resolve. Most forklift-related mishaps are a result of natural human behaviors — such as environmental & social distractions, growing tired, loss of interest, or confusion — to name a few. Warehouse environments are often fast paced, and humans can’t always be aware of every changing element around them at all times.
Smart, human-friendly forklifts, by contrast, are designed to work safely alongside people as “assistants.” Autonomous forklifts use sophisticated sensors and intelligent software to know what is going on around them in all directions at all times. They adjust their speed and actions in real time in response to what is occurring in their proximity. The equipment will detect and safely reroute around people and obstacles that come into its path.
Intelligent equipment can’t grow tired or distracted, they focus solely on the safe execution of their tasks and navigation of the facility. By design, they perform the tasks that might otherwise result in injury to human workers if done by manual equipment. This makes AMR forklifts an invaluable “co-worker” for warehouse employees.
Respond with ease to intensifying demand. Traditional DCs are relatively inflexible. Workflow, labor and overall operations management are difficult to scale up or down rapidly to handle volatile supply and demand patterns. The boom in e-commerce has tested traditional DCs’ ability to keep up with demand without significantly driving up costs.
Automated material handling robots like smart forklifts offer a solution. The cost of the technology is decreasing annually, making it affordable not just for large Fortune 500 DCs, but also for mid-size and even smaller warehousing operations. In addition, the emerging “robot-as-a-service” model allows companies to pay per use rather than buy the equipment outright.
Autonomous equipment can work around the clock when demand peaks, then stand by as needed. This helps to increase capacity and extend hours of operation at busy times, eliminating the requirement to reschedule large numbers of staff or acquire temporary staff.
The end result allows companies to add smart forklifts as assistants to their staff, thereby adding high levels of flexibility to facility operations while providing support to warehouse personnel.
Vecna Robotics helps distribution, warehousing and manufacturing organizations streamline their materials handling and logistics operations with award-winning autonomous forklifts. This new generation of intelligent equipment focuses on continually maximizing human and robot performance in the warehousing and distribution environment to enhance flexibility, productivity, and competitiveness.
“Not all autonomous vehicles are created equal,” says Jeff Huerta, Senior Vice President of AMR Solutions at Vecna Robotics. “Our smart, self-driving material-handling vehicles — including counterbalanced fork trucks, tuggers and pallet trucks — navigate autonomously and learn as they work. They’re powered by reliable and ever-improving autonomous technology. That technology stack enables agile and flexible workflow management to meet changing business needs quickly and in a cost-effective manner. This kind of agility is essential in this pandemic-changed world of highly volatile supply and demand profiles.”
“Our technology transforms material handling equipment into value-generating, intelligent, connected, self-driving vehicles,” Huerta continues. The Vecna Robotics “intelligent autonomy stack” brings together:
“Our user-friendly interfaces facilitate natural collaboration between humans and intelligent automation,” Huerta says. “Our devices are easy to use, with intuitive user interfaces. For example, they display sequenced pick lists containing SKU images, quantity, and tote information. Order pickers can quickly find and validate SKUs, reducing errors and sustaining high-pick accuracy. That’s essential in today’s high volatility market.”
“More importantly,” Huerta says, “Our technology frees the worker up by automating away the tasks that are dangerous, unenjoyable, and cost-ineffective. Our autonomous forklifts, for example, are self-driving so that they don’t waste employees’ valuable time in driving to and from storage positions in the warehouse.”
“To be clear, warehouse workers are and always will remain essential,” he says. “We’re just giving them better tools to improve the nature of the work they do.”
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