Is Forklift Automation Just Around The Corner?

Chinese auto company BYD has unveiled prototype driverless electric forklifts. This exciting prospect was developed alongside Singapore based ST Engineering. With sights set on an automated forklift which could be used in most facilities and with hopes to create additional models in the future, it begs the question: could the forklift industry soon embrace automation?

Let’s take a look at the developments that could make forklift automation a reality:

Automation

Automation Technology

The race between major car manufacturers to create a lv. 4 automated vehicle (one which is fully capable of travel without human interference) has been big news in recent years. Automation has come a long way, with many new cars including a multitude of driving aids.

Full automation maybe away off yet, however there have been major jumps. Tesla has created an autopilot system which has been tested on UK roads (all be it with a human pilot, able to interfere should there be issues) whilst other manufacturers such as BMW and Lexus have begun developing their own technologies.

With so much research and investment being put into automation, there’s no doubt that soon it will impact heavy machinery.

Artificial Intelligence

The term AI gets thrown around a lot these days and it’s become integral to many IT systems, including those found in most new phones. Much like humans do, AI learns and improves as it performs tasks repeatedly. Utilised properly it could change the manner in which many industries operate.

Forklift operations could alter drastically if AI was introduced, especially if the machines involved were fitted with automated technology. It could allow forklifts to not only operate without drivers, but also to learn from impacts, mistakes and react to potential dangers without assistance or interference.

The Digital Age

Business has changed somewhat in the past decade. Now, you can find automated picking in warehouses, entire databases can be accessed from a tablet and dangerous labour intensive work can now be carried out by machines.

In many ways, the landscape is ready for the introduction of driverless heavy machinery. Forklift operations could benefit as machines don’t tire or need to take breaks, nor do they become sick, making them a somewhat cost effective alternative to a large team of operatives. Productivity could also increase as operations could continue at night without supervision.

With these clear indications that the forklift industry is ready for this kind of innovation, it’s important to assess what could prevent automated forklifts from becoming an industry standard.

Safety

As with any new development, safety is the number one concern. Whilst there have been plenty of initial tests for automated vehicles, it’s become clear there’s still a long way to go in terms of ensuring the safety of the public. If the technology fails, especially in heavy machinery, it could be disastrous.

With human operators you have the advantage of always having some to interfere should anything go wrong. Humans too could be the main issue behind the lack of safety surrounding automated forklifts, as they’re unpredictable.

An automated fleet of automated forklifts may be able to learn the correct routes but should someone walk out in front of it at last second, would it be able to come to an abrupt stop without someone using the emergency break?

A Job Too Complex?

Operating a forklift is not easy. There’s a reason that extensive training is required before certification is awarded. Immense awareness and decision making is required for every different movement of the forklift, whether it involves removing a pallet from racking, moving throughout the facility, travelling with a load or even carrying out basic checks before use.

Whilst the technology exists to provide a forklift with decision making capabilities (see AI), machines are unable to mimic the instinct and experience that operators use on a daily basis to carry out their work.

Forklift operation

High Initial Costs

Whilst the purchase of automated vehicles could make sense for some business owners in the long run, the initial costs could be enough to put many off. Although no set figure for automated trucks has been announced, it would come as no surprise if the price is too high for many operations to justify.

Not only could this issue prevent companies from embracing automation, but could also set back the manufacturers who would be producing the vehicles. If sales aren’t as high as required to cover manufacturing costs, then it could put a premature halt to production all together.

The combination of complex technology and machinery would also mean that should any repairs or replacements be required, it could cost a business a fortune to keep their trucks working.

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We hope this insight into the future of self-driving trucks has been interesting for you. You can keep up with all the developments in the forklift industry by subscribing to our quarterly newsletter.

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