Every year, manual forklift drivers reportedly cause thousands of accidents. Not to mention the countless injuries, spills and waste of resources. One company, Mujin, is developing an autonomous loading and unloading system. They believe they’re close to commercializing their machines.
This innovative technology premiered at a show in Tokyo. While it didn’t perform perfectly, it displayed tremendous potential. The company is hoping to test the devices in a real warehouse.
Autonomous forklifts have plenty of benefits. The most obvious is efficiency. If perfected, these machines can work without rest, a clear advantage over human workers. From the company’s point of view, the cost of labor will be reduced significantly, which equals cheaper products.
By 2024, up to 2.4 million manufacturing jobs could go unfilled. With the rise of autonomous forklifts, companies will have no issue filling the gap. These devices are much safer than any human workforce.
Lifting heavy boxes all day is a back-breaking job. Employees lose work each day due to injury. However, with these new machines, workers can put their expertise towards positions that add more value to their lives and the company.
Tips for Selecting and Integrating Autonomous Forklifts
What kind of autonomous forklift should you buy? As you can imagine, multiple companies are fighting to dominate this market. Mujin offers fully equipped warehouse floors of robot forklifts. Seegrid, on the other hand, features robots with ten cameras, able to map their entire surroundings. Stocked Robots offers a microchip that can transform a regular forklift into a self-driving one.
The options are growing every day, so you’ll need to carefully consider your company’s goals if you want to add autonomous forklifts to your warehouse.
A warehouse owner’s biggest consideration should be in how the autonomous forklifts will fit in to their warehouse’s overall workflow. This is because the benefits to productivity that come from an autonomous forklift are the greatest in warehouses that are highly organized and consistent.
For example, a human-oaperated forklift shouldn’t be slowed down by a warehouse with inconsistently-sized wooden pallets or aisles. However, these same minor inconsistencies may throw off an automated forklift. A warehouse manager needs to be prepared to both incorporate autonomous forklifts and ensure that their warehouse floor is consistent enough for a robot to navigate. Moreover, fuel costs could impact the type of forklift you’re able to purchase. Diesel, electric and gas options are available for standard forklifts, however, autonomous forklifts might only be available with an electric power source. Managers will need to consider electric lifts make sense for their operations and if their current budget handle the energy bill.
More advanced models of autonomous forklift can be better at handling inconsistent conditions — like, for example, the Seegrid forklifts, which use their cameras to create a 3D model of the warehouse floor and navigate using that model. These models will also better handle a busy floor with many manual forklifts. More advanced models of autonomous forklift may, however, cost a little bit extra.
The second biggest consideration warehouse managers will have to make is whether to incorporate an entire fleet or add just a few autonomous forklifts at a time. The cost of autonomous forklifts — as well as the time your employees will need to adjust to the new technology — may make a slower integration a better idea.
The cheaper option is integrating a couple of machines into your workforce at a time. This choice isn’t as efficient because of the learning curve for workers around the new device. However, it’s a good option for those skeptical of the latest technology and want to see it in action before committing.
While the initial cost is cheaper, labor needs won’t reduce drastically. This choice also brings up concerns about employees working in the same area as autonomous forklifts. Less advanced autonomous forklifts may place workers at risk if the workers aren’t properly trained and the forklift isn’t advanced enough to detect and respond to the movement of workers across the floor.
Integrating an entire fleet would cost the most, but would pay off in the long run. The upfront price is a serious investment, but liability and labor expenses can drop significantly. The only cost afterward is maintenance.
Safety Tips for Working Alongside Autonomous Forklifts
The companies that create autonomous forklifts are entirely confident in their safety and performance. However, AI can be unpredictable. When implementing autonomous forklifts into your forklift fleet, managers should provide training to help employees adjust and keep safe. Specific safety standards that you can implement in your warehouse include:
- Proper training courses: All employees should have a good understanding of the technology that they’re working with, in case a problem arises. Employees should be trained in how to control these machines in the event of an emergency.
- Dedicated emergency protocol: The warehouse should have a protocol that employees can follow in the event of an emergency.
- Consistent conditions: Some autonomous forklifts have difficulty navigating inconsistent factory floors, and may not be prepared to handle obstacles like stray pallets. Workers can keep the warehouse environment consistent, which will significantly increase the safety of this technology.
Adding Autonomous Forklifts to Your Warehouse
Autonomous forklifts can offer huge benefits for warehouse owners. Autonomous forklifts can improve productivity, reduce error and make a warehouse safer. Integrating autonomous forklifts into an existing forklift fleet may take some care, however, and workers will need to be trained in new safety protocols.
Research your options if you want to add autonomous equipment to your worksite. Many find step-by-step integration is a cost-effective solution to increasing productivity while reducing risk. Plus, the additional time needed to integrate these forklifts will allow employers to implement the proper safety protocols.
Megan R. Nichols is a industrial writer and blogger. She regularly publishes in magazines like Manufacturing Global, EBN Online and Industry Week. She also updates her personal blog, Schooled By Science weekly with easy to understand manufacturing and technology articles. Keep up with Megan by subscribing to her blog or following her on Twitter.