Conventional forklift trucks may be fast approaching their physical limitation, so how can future efficiencies and productivity gains be achieved? Steve Richmond, general manager of Jungheinrich’s Systems & Projects Division, believes that, going forward, the truck must become an integral part of the operational process. This, he says, will be achieved by combining man and machine to optimize the value proposition
The forklift becomes a logistics unit
Although a machine bearing a resemblance to a forklift truck first appeared as early 1917, it wasn’t until the second world war that the forklift as we would recognize it today became truly established as a means of speeding up the handling of goods.
Over the ensuing decades the forklift concept has been continually refined and most trucks nowadays are sophisticated pieces of kit featuring complex electronic and hydraulic systems and an attention to ergonomic design that ensures high productivity, safety and operator comfort are achieved.
In fact, it could be argued that, such has been the extent of the forklift’s development , lift trucks are approaching the point where they cannot be safely made to travel any faster or lift a load any more quickly without contravening current and future health and safety requirements.
So, with the forklift still very much at the heart of most modern supply chains, does the product’s maturity mean that further technical developments are unlikely to offer any significant handling, productivity, safety or efficiency advances?
Steve Richmond, general manager of Jungheinrich UK Ltd’s Systems & Projects Division, believes that the most meaningful future supply chain productivity gains are likely to be made by optimising the truck’s on-board intelligence systems and integrating the truck into the logistics information process. "In other words," he explains, "the forklift will be seen less as a tool for picking up and moving pallets around – it is beginning to evolve into a logistics unit and will be perceived as such."
Steve Richmond continues: "You can’t change the laws of physics and so trucks are fast approaching their physical limitations in terms of weight load and lift height capacity. So the way forward has to involve integrating more technology to enable the truck and the operator to become part of the overall logistics process.
"Internal logistics functions continue to become more complex with increased demands on throughput, productivity and efficiencies and this places higher demands on both operators and trucks.
"Health and safety considerations make further demands on the operator and the working environment alike and all of these factors added to the fundamental need for the operator to find his or her way around the storage facility, check pick lists, scan items etc have added to the pressure on forklift drivers. Training a forklift operator can be a time consuming and expensive exercise and, if the facility has a high turnover of staff it can take a while for new workers to become familiar with their surroundings and, as a result, productivity levels inevitably fall.
"Therefore, any technology that removes some of the pressure on the forklift operator by making his or her day to day operational procedures more straightforward can only bring efficiency, productivity and safety benefits."
Warehouse management systems, on-truck data capture systems, RFID-based warehouse navigation systems and forklift truck personnel protection systems are just some of the technologies that are being used to deliver lift truck operational efficiencies, but Steve Richmond believes that, going forward, truck manufacturers will have to take on the role of ‘system suppliers’ if the potential benefits of these integrated solutions are to be fully realised.
"There are clear benefits to be gained by developing these technologies as part of the truck but it is essential that the integration of the technology is carefully carried out and is a robust solution delivered by the actual truck manufacturer. Simply ‘bolting’ on lots of additional equipment will not guarantee the overall benefits and improved efficiencies that the technology can bring.
"It is also important to identify a clear chain of responsibility for the after sales support and maintenance of both the truck and any sub-systems that are part of it. Where a number of suppliers simply bolt sub-systems on to a forklift truck disputes can arise over the responsibility for the ongoing management of the critical interfaces. That’s why it is important that users choose a truck manufacturer that can provide the trucks and the sub-systems – be it RDT’s, scanners or warehouse management systems."
The benefits of developing the forklift truck as an integrated logistics unit will, in Steve Richmond’s opinion, be improved productivity from both machine and operator; greater energy efficiency; enhanced safety and less time and money spent on operator training.
"The forklift truck may be approaching the limits of it physical performance but there are still plenty of opportunities to make it work smarter and they will begin to emerge in the years to come," he concludes.
A good example of technology making the operator’s role more straightforward can be found on Jungheinrich’s new Series 2 and 3 – the EKS 210 and EKS 312 – vertical order pickers. The trucks are equipped with state-of-the-art RFID technology that enables a warehouse management system to automatically guide the forklift to the right location in the right aisle at all times. The trucks’ in-built RFID warehouse navigation unit enables the operator to receive picking instructions from the warehouse management system. Once the instructions have been transmitted, the operator simply accepts the command via a terminal and the warehouse management system automatically guides the truck to the location in which the goods are stored. The truck travels via the shortest route and at the optimal speed to ensure that energy consumption and travel time is minimised.
"The operator needs only to engage the safety controls on the truck and can then relax while the truck is directed to the right spot within the aisle. The truck then commences its approach to the storage location and as soon as the correct location has been reached, a light on the side of the truck signals to the driver whether he has to pick the order from the left or right.," says Steve Richmond, general manager of Jungheinrich UK Ltd’s Systems & Projects Division. "The result is a considerable improvement in picking accuracy as the operator cannot go to the wrong location and picking mistakes are, therefore significantly reduced," he adds.
The RFID transponders used to guide the new order pickers are no bigger than the size of a thumbnail and are quickly and easily installed into the floor within the aisles of the warehouse or distribution centre. The trucks are equipped with readers, which, on passing over a transponder, pinpoint the truck’s position within the facility – rather like a car’s satellite navigation system.
In addition to guiding the truck on the most time and energy efficient route around the warehouse, the RFID system offers a number of important safety benefits., as Steve Richmond explains: "The transponders can sense if the truck is approaching the end of an aisle or a transfer aisle within the racking and will slow the truck’s speed accordingly. The truck’s travel speed will also be optimized to suit the standard of the floor over which it is traveling – for example if a part of the warehouse floor is uneven, the truck’s speed will be reduced automatically. In addition, if, when traveling with the operator platform raised, the truck is approaching a height obstacle likely to endanger the operator the truck is brought to a controlled stop. Furthermore, if the operator attempts to raise the platform to a height likely to bring him into collision with, say, the roof of the facility or some other object, the lift function cuts out."
Another interesting use of technology to reduce the operator’s workload is the automated pallet scanning and identification solution recently introduced by Jungheinrich. The scanning system – which was recently voted winner of the prestigious UKWA Warehouse Technology Award 2009 – is an integral part of the forklift truck and allows the forklift driver to simply enter the truck’s fork into the target pallet as normal before the scanner automatically records the ID barcode located on the pallet load.
By removing the need for the truck operator to scan the pallet’s barcode using a hand-held device, Jungheinrich say that the new fork-based scanning process not only results in significant time savings compared with manual scanning, but reduces the forklift driver’s workload and ensures low picking error rates.