Smart Forklifts are Enhancing Warehouses and Supply Chains

How Smart Forklifts and The Internet of Things are increasing productivity and efficiency 

In the United States, 4.5 million manual forklift operators handle almost all the pallet movement across the nation. Forklifts and forklift operators have always been important to the material handling of products. However, managing the workforce has proven to be challenging for most 3PLs as workers continue to age, retire, or resign. Efforts to maintain the warehouse workforce have been stymied by the great resignation, and this has impacted supply chains across the globe. Worker satisfaction now plays a pivotal role in warehouse labor, and safety is a priority to the worker experience.

In the age of e-commerce, warehouses have become more important to supply chain management. Customer orders must be accurately filled and shipped promptly otherwise negative customer experiences are the result. If that happens, the overall profitability of supply chains is affected. Smart forklifts can help alleviate these issues.

Prior to the pandemic, experts predicted that the use of smart forklifts would increase in response to the US labor market. Today, under 10% of warehouses use autonomous equipment and less than 2% of all forklifts sold in the US are automated. However, the demand for these intelligent machines cannot be understated.

The automated forklift market in the US is expected to reach $6.4 billion by 2027. In 2021, DHL Supply Chain launched the use of smart forklifts in over 1500 warehouses worldwide. They have stated that their smart forklifts can reach 65% of human output while moving 10 to 15 pallets per hour safely alongside warehouse associates.  DHL asserts that a fleet of only 12 smart forklifts can manage at least one million pallets per year in just one of their facilities.

What Is a Smart Forklift?

A smart forklift is an autonomous mobile robot (AMR). These machines are intelligent and self-driving and can perform warehouse operations without the assistance of a human worker. Humans oversee the work of smart forklifts, but autonomous forklifts perform their tasks independent of manual operation.  One worker can manage several forklifts in varying locations throughout the warehouse to:

  • Move palletized goods to and from conveyors
  • Move trash, dunnage, and empty pallets from the warehouse floor
  • Move goods to and from staging areas
  • Deliver and put-away product loads

Autonomous or smart forklifts are a solution to challenges that affect 3PL warehouses. In addition to saving on labor, smart forklifts are streamlining warehouse operations which help to build more efficient supply chains.  They have an advantage over human workers because they can operate intelligently without rest. Because of this they can move effectively within warehouses and expedite certain tasks such as, loading, unloading, and shipping consistently and accurately.  

Smart forklifts are one of the newest forms of advanced technology being used to alleviate the labor shortage and raw materials handling issues that are affecting warehouses. Most humans prefer to complete more complex tasks and the jobs that smart forklifts do are tedious. Smart forklifts do the heavy lifting and repetitive work so that employees can focus on high-level processes. The intelligence of smart forklifts is valuable to 3PLs because they can seamlessly integrate into warehouse management systems enabling warehouses to operate around the clock. This helps warehouses and distribution centers extend their operating hours, increasing their ability to meet rising consumer demands.  

 

The way in which a business’s goods are stored and managed has a major effect on its profitability which is why warehouses are crucial to effective supply chains. Warehouses and distribution centers are the nucleus of commerce and necessary to the vertical integration of industries such as food and beverage and agriculture. Without efficient warehouse management, business processes would be in disarray. According to Grand View Research, the warehouse management industry is going to reach $8.1 billion by 2028, with most of the investment into warehouse management being directed towards automation. This will increase supply chain optimization as warehouses digitize.

 

Smart Forklifts and The Internet of Things (IoT)

The Internet of Things (IoT) is a term used to describe a network of connected devices, objects, and sensors that collect and send information. IoT technologies are connected to the internet through data or Wi-Fi and are a benefit to all phases of supply chain management. Smart forklifts are equipped with sensors, artificial intelligence, and radio frequency identification (RFID) that are connected to the Internet of Things. These connections support the capability of smart forklifts to do the jobs of and assist humans.

By utilizing smart forklifts to handle menial tasks, warehouses can simplify their operations, lower labor costs, and make the workplace safer. IoT also enables smart forklifts to collect real-time data analytics that give insight into warehouse operations. These insights can be used to significantly improve supply chain processes.

3PLs that utilize smart forklifts in their warehouse operations have a competitive advantage over other warehouses and fulfillment centers. IoT helps to properly integrate smart forklifts into warehouse management systems.  This is helping to make smart forklifts a reality as a supply chain solution. IoT allows smart forklifts to:

  • Provide the WMS with vehicle maintenance updates
  • Adjust movement and driving speed based on warehouse area congestion
  • Identify potential risks and disruptions that can impact warehouse operations
  • Store, replenish, and position products safer and more accurately than humans

Without IoT, automated machine robots such as smart forklifts would not be able to learn and intelligently communicate with one another and humans. Many warehouses and 3PLs are anticipating a more fervent use of smart forklifts. The global forklift IoT solutions market is forecast to reach $47.6 billion by 2025, a 12% growth from 2020. Much of this market growth is due to IoT ability to streamline warehousing operations for improved supply chain management.  

Many 3PLs are using IoT technologies to streamline their warehouse operations and supply chain processes. One way that IoT is accomplishing this is by bringing human labor and smart forklifts together.

Labor is one of the more costly expenses in warehousing and it is affected by factors such as mental and physical fatigue. These factors can result in errors in material handling or injury.  This can have a negative impact on business processes.

IoT and smart forklifts provide a solution to these issues by enabling warehouses to perform operations around the clock without the risk of human error or injury. One example of IoT and smart forklifts improving warehouse operations is during the picking process. Although smart forklifts can complete tasks without human assistance, workers can still control smart forklifts by remote control or voice activation.  In this process, workers can signal the warehouse management system to relay information to the smart forklift that tells it:

  • Where to go
  • What to pick
  • How high or low the item is in the warehouse
  • The speed at which to move

Smart forklifts possess certain technologies that allow them to work safely alongside humans. Collaborative efforts between humans and smart forklifts enhance warehouse productivity and effectiveness by freeing up the human workers so they can complete other tasks. Smart forklifts can move pallets vertically and horizontally as well as take over picking, storing, and replenishment duties. As labor costs rise due to the demand for human workers, smart forklifts are lowering both human pallet transfer and the cost of moving pallets while also ensuring the safety of workers.

Vital IoT Smart Forklift Technology

Speed Controls – RFID tags installed in warehouse floors help to ensure that automated forklifts do not exceed warehouse speed limits.

Lift Access Control – Warehouse associates can utilize an RFID tag to log into and out of forklifts for operation. This tech verifies authorized forklift users.

Collision Detection Systems – Visual and auditory incident detection system that alerts warehouse associates and other forklifts when a forklift is coming or vulnerable to accident.

 

Smart Forklifts Minimize Labor Costs

Warehouse and distribution centers are pivotal to the success of global supply chains. Labor shortages from seasonal pickers to heavy machine operators have affected most 3PLs and have caused damage to their ability to fulfill customer orders. This in turn affects customer satisfaction and customer experience, which are more important to the profitability of businesses than ever.

Smart forklifts enhance inventory management by removing workers from repetitive tasks such as picking orders or refilling product. Instead of one person per manual forklift, a single employee can oversee several machines. This helps to retain warehouse employees and remove them from dangerous and/or dull tasks, which can increase worker satisfaction. The more satisfied a worker is, the higher warehouse productivity and employee retention rates are. This in turn contributes to overall warehouse labor costs being cut.

Smart Forklifts Boost Throughput

The United Nations reports that the COVID-19 lockdowns saw e-commerce sales increase by up to 39% per quarter. Demand that high left companies hard-pressed to respond to the sudden rise in orders. Smart forklifts are helping to accelerate throughput to meet the demand of e-commerce orders.

The intelligence of smart forklifts gives them the ability to identify congestion in warehouses and distribution centers so that they can learn to avoid these zones. They are then able to plan consistent routes through the warehouse that maximize their ability to move items to where they need to be swiftly.  These calculated movements increase workflow reliability and assist in mitigating workflow disruptions caused by the labor shortage.

Smart forklifts are utilized by 3PLs to act as helpers to warehouse associates. They add to the existing staff and can operate for extended periods which lets warehouses and distribution centers fulfill more orders. As a result, warehouse operations are simplified, and more products can be processed for delivery.

Smart Forklifts Improve Workflow Efficiency

Without consistent workflow, 3PLs face wasted movement and downtime. Smart forklifts lower the movements of empty forklifts throughout warehouses by systematically planning and ordering their paths to complete tasks in the most efficient way possible.

The Internet of Things lets smart forklifts communicate with each other and other automated mobile robots to simplify processes and maintain low levels of congestion. With their ability to learn, smart forklifts can build maps of the warehouse floor and recognize warehouse patterns. This allows them to adjust their movements accordingly. For instance, if a particular section of a warehouse is congested during a specific time, the smart forklift will strategize routes that steer clear of the area. This is an essential function in warehousing environments because forklifts can maneuver around unplanned obstacles without the need for human supervision. This lets warehouse workers concentrate on high-value tasks with limited interruption. 

Smart Forklifts Increase Workplace Safety

Working in warehouses and distribution centers is physically demanding.  Injuries involving back pain, repetitive movement, and forklift accidents can cause significant injury or death.  According to Occupational Safety and Health Administration, forklifts are responsible for 85 deaths, 35,000 serious and 62,000 non-serious injuries in the United States each year. This means that 90% of all manual forklifts will be involved in an incident that leads to worker injury at least once in the life of the forklift.

Many workplace injuries are the result of fatigue, confusion, or loss of interest. These injuries can hurt employee morale, discourage potential employees, and cause irreparable damages to businesses. Unlike manual forklifts, smart forklifts are meant to mitigate risks to employees by performing tasks that could result in injury to human workers. Working alongside and assisting humans, smart forklifts utilize sensors and software to convey what is going on around them so they can adjust their movements and speed in real-time. This allows them to circumvent warehouse associates and obstructions in their paths, improving workplace safety.

 

Conclusion

Smart forklifts are providing integrated and continuous operations for warehouses and distribution centers around the world. The traditional supply chain model is not historically flexible, however companies that transition to a digital supply chain are adapting to many supply chain issues. Smart forklifts are just one piece to the puzzle to solving the current supply chain crises. They give warehouses a competitive advantage and meet customer expectations. Smart forklifts are benefitting businesses by increasing their capacity to meet customer expectations like expedited order fulfillment.

Smart forklifts save companies time and money by completing tasks efficiently and effectively. They support and promote simplified warehouse operations and as advancing technology modernizes global supply chains, smart forklifts will continue to be utilized.  

The IoT is enabling companies to seamlessly adopt digital supply chain models and subsequently streamline their warehouse operations. This can help to create more sustainable supply chains by improving productivity while also saving money. With the IoT, 3PLs can utilize smart forklifts to increase the efficiency of their warehouse operations and streamline their supply chain processes.

As issues around labor and an emphasis on customer expectation cause stress to global supply chains, mitigating risk is more crucial to supply and demand. Coupled with the rise in consumer demand, supply chain stresses have intensified. However, the stress that these two factors have had on warehouses and distribution centers is leading to remarkable supply chain optimization. Smart forklifts are becoming essential for supply chains to thrive and smart forklifts are helping to accomplish that goal.

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Resources

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