Lift Truck Strategies Raise the Bar

Tags: Forklifts, Materials Handling

Materials handling automation and warehouse technology are transforming forklift fleets into competitive weapons—and distribution facilities into finely tuned, demand-responsive machines.

"The dynamics of distribution are changing," says Bruce Stubbs, director of industry marketing for Everett, Wash.-based inventory tracking solutions company Intermec. "Companies want immediate results."

This demand for speed and responsiveness spans the entire supply chain, from consumers to retailers and upstream manufacturers and suppliers.

The warehousing industry's appetite for new materials handling equipment and solutions has closely followed consumption patterns and speed-to-market expectations. For example, the e-commerce revolution has reduced the consumer shopping experience to point-and-click proficiency—and buyers expect as much from fulfillment and delivery.

Demand has triggered a rush of new distribution center (DC) solutions. Automated guided vehicles (AGVs), mobile computing tablets, vertical carousels and storage systems, and on-demand warehouse control systems are but a few tools that make today's warehouse a veritable lab for experimentation and innovation.

As new distribution strategies and warehouse technologies emerge, forklift manufacturers and integrators are adapting to demand. Their objective is to eliminate wasted time and space. And for some end users, lift truck fleets are becoming a competitive differentiator rather than a capital expense.

One Size Doesn't Fit All

While sophisticated sortation, conveyor, and carousel systems organize and speed flow, mobile communication devices capture and disseminate data, and intelligent warehouse management systems direct action, forklifts are the real DC movers and shakers.

This doesn't mean lift trucks aren't sophisticated, or fleet management decisions are low priorities. In fact, proper due diligence encompasses a number of different considerations. For one, a wide variety of lift truck models are available to choose from: counterbalanced sit-down riders, low-lift walkies, swing-reach turrets, and order pickers; with many different power options including electric, natural gas, diesel, and gasoline. Companies can acquire lift trucks new or used, lease them, or outsource entirely. They can maintain and manage fleets in-house or through a third party.

Companies are challenged with identifying the right mix of assets, the appropriate deployment, and the ideal facility layout to optimize product flow—whether it's a vertically oriented, high-density very-narrow aisle (VNA) layout, or a wide-open crossdock.

"One size does not fit all," says Cesar Jimenez, national product planning manager, for forklift manufacturer Toyota Material Handling U.S.A. "Ten to 20 years ago, basic forklift specs applied to a broader base of end users. Today, 40 percent of our orders are special-design requests."

Irvine, Calif.-based Toyota maintains a team to vet special requests. Not all requests are approved, but sometimes the ideas presented hold mainstream appeal.

"Recently, a company requested we include an integrated sideshifting legal-for-trade scale on our I.C. lift truck," says Jimenez. "No forklift manufacturer offers that as a standard option. It's a specialized piece of equipment that is integral to the lift truck itself."

The client could have worked with a third party to develop an aftermarket lift truck attachment that would have met its need. Instead, it chose to work with Toyota to improve upon what was already in the field. The manufacturer developed a forklift with the integrated scale, delivered a prototype to the customer, received feedback, and made some modifications. Now the scale is a standard option available to all customers.

Accessorizing Forklifts

How forklift end-users are modifying and managing fleets to boost efficiency and effectiveness reflects the changing distribution landscape. For many facility managers today, the buzzword is flexibility. It may be a matter of working within a shoestring budget, or simply having the ability to adapt warehouse infrastructure and scale assets to peak season demand flows. Some companies invest in forklift equipment to optimize existing operations. Others let solutions dictate the way they design and flow inventory through facilities.

Although automation promises to be the next materials handling revolution, most companies are still committed to its building blocks.

Customizing the Space

"Ninety-nine percent of companies are working with forklifts, reach trucks, pallet jacks, stock pickers, and four-wheel sit-down machines," says Michael Gary, vice president, sales and customer service, for LTM Services, a Manorville, N.Y., fleet cost management consulting firm. "The difference is in how they set up their shop. Very-narrow-aisle layouts are still popular. Companies are also considering vertical configurations, which don't increase their footprint or tax base, but do increase cubage."

LTM manages more than 30,000 pieces of equipment across the United States for companies such as M&M Mars, Pep Boys, and Pinnacle Foods. Multinational companies with huge fleet operations are always trying to figure out more efficient and effective ways to perform materials handling activities.

Some are exploring automated guided vehicle systems. Office Depot, for example, opened a state-of-the-art facility two years ago in Newville, Pa., that features robotic picking, high-density storage, and a high-speed conveyor and sortation system. Companies with a specific product demand, heavy volume, and steady inventory flows can design a new facility that makes automation technology work. But this level of innovation and capital investment is unattainable for most companies.

Instead, an overabundance of warehousing capacity and a lengthy recession have pinched discretionary spending. New facility expansion has largely been shelved in favor of warehouse contraction and optimization, and network realignment. This approach allows companies to leverage tried-and-true forklift management strategies and materials handling technology to manage growth without significant investment.

"Businesses are looking for more flexibility in their operations and workforce," says Stubbs. "Fork-mount units and forklift solutions that are voice-, RFID-, and data-capture-enabled allow the asset to operate as a multimodal tool. The forklift can capture critical data through a scan, allowing users to leverage voice-picking instructions to increase accuracy and productivity."

Overall, forklift equipment and technology exist in separate spheres. Some forklift manufacturers, such as Crown and Raymond, are adding internal sensors and analytics to their equipment. The collected data helps users judge when a machine needs preventive maintenance, or speeds operators through their daily checklists. Electronics, however, inevitably add complexity and repair costs.

But companies such as Intermec are developing solutions—hardware, software, and services—that provide a total package. Working closely with materials handling and third-party software companies allows the integrator to constantly evaluate industry trends, and push the envelope to enhance traditional lift truck solutions.

For example, Intermec is transforming materials handling vehicles into information technology tools by integrating vehicle-mounted mobile computers, barcode scanners, and RFID. This enhances productivity and efficiency with even greater far-reaching benefits.

"Deploying these technologies allows growing companies to increase throughput and handle more volume while postponing the need for expansion," explains Stubbs. "Also, some businesses are moving away from conventional distribution where they bring product in, put it away, replenish, pick, and ship.

"Retailers, for example, are considering crossdocking and flow-through models, removing existing warehouse infrastructure and enlarging dock space inbound and outbound to move product through the facility faster and with fewer touches," he adds.

Counterbalancing Automation

The warehouse of the future may resemble an autonomous machine, but it will be a gradual evolution—and human direction will never be too far removed. Some companies are already exploring ways they can incorporate elements of automation within a conventional warehouse footprint without locking up significant capital in long-term return on investment.

Toyota has witnessed an uptick in queries about automation options. Despite the fact that it's part of a corporate hierarchy that manufactures non-automated forklifts, Toyota also offers a line of AGVs.

"Automation provides a different type of solution for moving product more efficiently in a facility," says Jimenez.

One example is converting a conventional class-3 electric-tow tractor into an automated vehicle using an aftermarket kit. Magnetic tape placed on the warehouse floor directs equipment where it needs to move. The user has the flexibility to use the asset as an AGV or a conventional tow tractor, depending on need. The added benefit of using an aftermarket kit is that users can resell the equipment as OEM, and if they lease their forklifts they can easily install the kit on new units.

In the Zone

Integrating automated forklifts and lanes into a DC can greatly impact productivity by reducing travel time and optimizing labor utilization—for example, enabling zone picking.

"Some companies set up a fleet of automated forklifts that brings product to a staging area," says Stubbs. "One picker works in a specified zone, and the machine brings pallets to the worker, who uses voice technology to pick the assignment. When complete, the truck moves to another zone for the next person and pick." Automating the product's movement to the picker eliminates human travel time and waste.

The extent to which companies can add automation is ultimately limited by disruptions to existing processes, cost, and ambition. When companies go all-in with automation, they generally prefer a blank canvas.

But, as with any major materials handling overhaul, risk is involved. When Gary creates proposals for clients, he wants them to understand the entirety of their commitment to a solution. As a cautionary reminder, he recalls a client that designed a new building around a swing-mast truck and its ability to run more narrow aisles. After three years, the equipment became too cost-prohibitive to maintain, but the company was stuck with the investment because of how it set up the facility.

Materials handling is now a significant consideration in facility design and site selection decision-making. That's a testament to increasing innovation, as well as the cost of investment.

Conventional Wisdom

Automation holds the key to unlocking future distribution efficiency. In certain industries, that value proposition makes sense and has already been amortized through careful investment and facility design. But it's not a silver-bullet solution.

More telling is the reality that businesses are keen to amplify lift truck utility by integrating technology, and experimenting with automated vehicle guidance. But they also want the option to flip the switch between automation and convention. Warehouse management has always been an exercise in scalability, matching assets and resources to inventory flows as efficiently as possible. Mobilizing lift truck fleets that physically move product, gather data, and communicate visual or aural instructions to operators in real-time optimizes asset and labor movement while providing more flexibility to perform different functions.

Stubbs envisions a more collaborative distribution landscape that integrates infrastructure with mobile equipment—whether autonomous or human-operated.

"Materials handling equipment is both static and mobile," he says. "Companies want to use these lift truck fleets in different ways. Ultimately, it builds greater flexibility across the entire network."

Like piece-picking orders from a diverse inventory, companies will always have myriad options at their disposal to mix and match storage and conveyance infrastructure with materials handling equipment—all under the hierarchy of warehouse management technologies. Selectivity is what makes every warehouse system unique.

But the forklift isn't going anywhere fast—unless it needs to.