Our world is on the move. Gone are the days when change and innovation was periodic – today, new technology is introduced every week across industries.

One of the biggest advancements driving these changes is, of course, automation. Automation is the technology that gives banks and lenders the ability to approve or deny your application for a loan in minutes, and it allows advertisements to appear while you are reading the news online without any human intervention.

So how could automation affect a materials handling company? Even today, this industry can conjure images of overall-clad workers speeding around warehouses in forklifts. But change is knocking at our industry’s door, so let’s take a look at the next obvious step – smart forklift trucks – forklifts that are self-driving and will automatically make decisions about the most efficient way of working.

As hire equipment specialists, we are constantly asking how we can continually improve our operations to be more efficient. So let’s take a look at how ‘smart forklifts’ could change materials handling, and what it would mean for the industry as a whole:

SAFER WAREHOUSES

For many, manual labour is inseparable from materials handling. However, this in turn means that warehouses and other storage facilities come with a hefty price tag when it comes to health and safety – and rightly so when people’s welfare is at stake.

The Health and Safety Executive keeps a close eye on incidents and injuries in materials handling – and on the whole things look encouraging. Logistical jobs are becoming safer with injuries occurring less every year. But when accidents do happen, warehouses are the second most likely places for them to occur. Being struck by a vehicle was the most common cause of fatal accidents, followed by being struck by a moving object.

Clearly advancements need to be made to make materials handling an even safer industry. Smart forklifts are being piloted today to explore removing workers from the warehouse; the forklifts will shelve inventory from one truck, find it again at the right time and take it back to a delivery vehicle; some research is even exploring the automation of delivery vehicles.

So if smart forklifts move from the research facility and into mainstream warehouses, the materials handling sector will no doubt see a drastic change, with the chances and occurrence of accidents, injuries and fatalities decreasing dramatically. If there is any need for workers to be on the floor at all, a smart forklift fitted with the right technology will respond quicker than a manned vehicle to a potential collision, processing information in nanoseconds.

IMPROVED FUEL EFFICIENCY IN WAREHOUSES

Battery powered forklifts aren’t a new concept – they quickly became the norm in our industry due to their cost-effective nature. But smart forklifts will continue to drive warehouses to become even more fuel efficient.

Firstly, removing a driver from the forklift (along with all the mechanics necessary for a driver to operate it) will decrease burdens dramatically. As we all know from driving with a full car on holiday, a lighter vehicle is kinder to fuel. The cost of electricity across even a quarter could be considerable to some operations.

Secondly, smart forklift decisions will be purely computer and data driven; a system will automatically select the most efficient route to inventory and then onto the delivery vehicle – deviations to avoid co-workers and other distractions will be eliminated, not to mention trips to the break room for a well-deserved cup of tea.

The technology required to run smart forklifts will also become more accessible to businesses, again creating considerable savings, in addition to improving environmental and operational sustainability. A green warehouse can be both responsible and competitive.

INCREASED TIME EFFICIENCY

Smart forklifts would be managed entirely by computers. These computers would be driven entirely by an increasing pool of data (eg. how long it takes to transport a 25kg box 300 metres across the warehouse). Not only will this data provide companies with the information to constantly improve their inventory schedules, but it will also help to maximise their capacity and revenue.

Disruptions could also be managed more effectively. Automation cannot completely remove mistakes and errors, but it will certainly improve managing them. A delay caused by a malfunction could trigger an immediate, precise message to the contracted repairers, as well as notify the following stages of the chain with details of the issue with a realistic estimate of the delay.

This alone could change how we manage disruptions in materials handling. Incidents can be recognised, and even anticipated, by computers in a much timelier manner than us, and could be handled without any human intervention in some cases.

Since smart forklifts will only require downtime for repairs and routine maintenance, uptime at warehouses could be increased considerably along with these improvements to efficiency. A 24/7 materials handling operation would be infinitely more achievable with smart forklifts integrated with other automated operations.

INCREASED CUSTOMER CONFIDENCE

For the most part, we have looked at the impact that research into smart forklift technology will have on materials handling operations from a business perspective. But what about that of customers?

If you have ordered a parcel online in the last few years, you will already know the impact of technology in this area. Today it would be unusual, and even concerning, if you placed an order online without receiving an estimated delivery. Most couriers provide some form of real time updates – whether by logging into a website or sending text message alerts.

If advancements from smart forklift research translate to the mainstream, customers will not just inherit savings from a more cost-efficient operation; they will have access to updates that are accurate to the minute, with disruptions quickly calculated to manage their impact more effectively. In the case of international moves, this could be the difference between a customer’s container reaching a freighter or flight and missing it.

THE VERDICT

So how will current research into smart forklifts change materials handling? Firstly, by deploying workers elsewhere materials will become a safer industry forever. Along with injury-free warehouses, smart forklifts will offer cost savings to materials handling supply chains which can be passed on to customers for competitive advantage.

Along with a competitive edge in regards to pricing, businesses utilising smart forklifts in their operation will also be able to provide a more reliable service to their customers, all while becoming more sustainable.

These advancements alone will change the face of our industry. But with a truly 24/7 materials handling operation becoming much more achievable with this research, advancements will go even further. Disruptions to the supply chain will be recognised quicker with the corresponding delay to latter stages of the supply chain calculated in an instant. In short, research into smart forklifts is set to change materials handling forever.