Lift Trucks on the Rise

Tags: Forklifts

Forklift illustration

Ready to invest in new and upgraded lift trucks to boost warehouse efficiency? Consider these three trends before making your move.

As the economy finally begins to rebound, and cash flow picks up, many businesses are turning their attention to upgrading supply chain operations and equipment. Some are investing in new lift trucks—and they have more choices than ever before.

Many of these upgrades are long overdue. "As industries and markets recover, companies are making up for deferred capital improvements," says Bill Pfleger, president of Cleveland, Ohio-based lift truck manufacturer Yale Materials Handling Corporation. "In some cases, they have been using lift trucks on lease extensions, and are now turning to replacement lift trucks."

Part of the upswing in lift truck demand may be attributed to companies that had not completed buying cycles or improvement projects several years ago when the economy was more challenging. But businesses are also seeking more technically advanced forklifts that can help create competitive advantage.

"Companies are increasingly interested in using technology to drive improvements in operational efficiency," says Lew Manci, director of product development for New Bremen, Ohio-based Crown Equipment Corporation. "They operate in a much more competitive environment today than before the recession. Technology is one way to improve operational costs."

This post-recession mindset has emboldened some businesses to seek out new solutions. "A few years ago, companies were more conservative, and less willing to significantly change the status quo," says Tim Meyer, solutions and automatic guided vehicle product manager for Irvine, Calif.-based Toyota Material Handling, U.S.A. Inc. "Today, businesses are conceding that they need to take the next step to be more competitive on a global scale."

If that next step involves investment in new and upgraded lift trucks, it's important to evaluate the many developments occurring in the industry. Here are three lift truck trends that might help guide your decision.

Trend #1: AGVs and Automated Lift Trucks

Automated guided vehicles (AGVs) have been around in one form or another for more than 30 years, but interest in them has spiked recently. The reason is simple: labor is expensive—often estimated at 70 to 80 percent of the hourly cost of operating a lift truck. AGVs and automated lift trucks—which differ from AGVs in that a multi-head camera system, rather than lasers, tape, wire, or magnets, guides them—offer innovative ways to reduce labor costs and improve efficiency.

Built to travel the same fixed paths, transporting the same or similar goods repeatedly with limited to no human intervention, AGVs and automated lift trucks can offset some labor rate stress many companies are currently experiencing, and help transition existing labor to more value-added work.

"While human drivers vary their routes and speeds, robots travel from Point A to Point B all day long without a break," says Rudi Koetter, automation expert at Greene, N.Y.-based forklift manufacturer Raymond Corporation. "The user gets a known result, which can mean huge efficiency improvements."

Crown has documented between seven and 15 percent productivity improvements from using AGVs. And while it previously took months to design, build, install, and bring AGV systems to full operational potential, advances in technology now make them easier to set up and modify.

In addition to efficiency, AGVs and automated lift trucks deliver other advantages. Because they move at a controlled speed with a variety of proximity and collision detection systems, they often improve safety and reduce product damage.

"Some users report damage reductions of up to 90 percent," notes Manci.

AGVs can also reduce or eliminate the productivity loss that occurs when batteries need to be charged or replaced on manned forklifts, which require bursts of high power for lifting or dumping, as well as continuous energy for travel between stations. Because these bursts significantly reduce battery life, many AGVs now use supercapacitors instead of batteries. Unlike batteries, supercapacitors require little maintenance and can be charged in seconds.

While AGVs and automated lift trucks boast several advantages, they also can create challenges companies must be prepared to manage.

"Introducing robotic systems often creates concern among the workforce that drivers will lose their jobs," says Meyer. "To prepare, businesses should ensure they have a top-down buy-in strategy. They should be primed to show how the company and its employees will benefit from productivity improvements, and how human drivers can be used for value-added work rather than for repetitive tasks."

Cost can be another deterrent. AGVs and automated lift trucks are a significant investment. The efficiency and safety benefits and product damage reductions they contribute, however, can help justify those costs.

AGVs and automated lift truck solutions will soon be an essential warehouse component, Manci says. "Significant additional advancements in forklift technology and automation are just around the corner, and they will make AGVs an increasingly fundamental part of warehouse and manufacturing facility operations," he notes.

Trend #2: Telematics

Telematics—the convergence of telecommunications and data collection technologies such as sensors and RFID technology—is increasingly being used to collect data about lift truck operation and operator performance. Such data monitoring can help companies reduce operating costs and improve productivity and efficiency.

The Yale Vision system, for example, gives lift truck owners access to a variety of tracking capabilities, including an hour meter, cost of operations, periodic maintenance, fault code, impact monitoring, operator training, parking brake and seat belt violations, and speed alerts. The system can send emails automatically when certain faults or impacts occur, improving the information available to managers reviewing incidents.

"Telematics allows management to see what's happening on the floor in real time," says Manci. "Previously, many computer systems were reading bar-code scans, but they provide only a small amount of information.

"Telematics solutions allow companies to track many more elements, providing a big-picture view and enabling them to make adjustments and changes that can improve operations," he adds.

Spicers, one of the United Kingdom's largest stationery and office supply wholesalers, recently implemented Crown's InfoLink telematics solution. The Spicers system uses a fleet of InfoLink-equipped forklifts that turn real-time and historic data into organized, prioritized, and actionable information. The solution has allowed the wholesaler to reduce fleet maintenance and repair costs by 90 percent.

Use of telematics appears to be gaining ground quickly. "Companies are still hesitant to spend, but they are also trying to find all the efficiencies they can, and make equipment use more cost-effective," says John Rosenberger, manager of the iWarehouse Gateway for Raymond Corporation.

iWarehouse is a fully integrated suite of tools that continuously collects numerous data points in real time, and transforms critical data into intuitive graphic reports.

"The tool gives any materials handling operation the ability to immediately evaluate and act upon information that directly shapes its bottom line," says Rosenberger.

While more advanced uses of telematics data are possible, most companies use the information primarily to support maintenance and fleet management initiatives. The onboard computer on a Raymond lift truck, for instance, can send fault codes and lift truck serial numbers by e-mail to a technician's smartphone or computer.

"That communication allows technicians to diagnose trucks, and immediately bring the tools, parts, and components needed to fix the problem," Rosenberger says.

Raymond has incorporated a pre-op checklist into its iWarehouse product. Lift truck operators previously had to fill out and file a manual pre-op form, but now they can answer pre-op questions using a computer mounted on the truck.

"It used to take about 17 minutes for the operator to complete the pre-op paperwork and file it manually," says Rosenberger. "Using the iWarehouse unit, it now takes two minutes. That saves about 4.5 hours daily.

"The checklist also randomizes the questions, so drivers cannot just auto-fill their answers," he adds. "This helps ensure the trucks are monitored, maintained, and operating properly. Tools such as this are critical to increasing productivity and profitability."

One drawback to telematics is that data is only as good as what the business does with it. If a company is not properly prepared, the data it collects can go under-analyzed. As a result, some companies are taking telematics one step further. Hyster Distribution's Tracker wireless asset management system, for example, can tell users what their data means and where they should take action.

"The system not only collects data, but also provides valuable information that can help companies better operate, care for, and maintain their lift trucks," says Jonathan Dawley, president of Cleveland, Ohio-based Hyster.

Trend #3: Integrated Mobile Applications

The proliferation and popularity of mobile technology is changing supply chain operations. It's also making an impact in materials handling as more companies are exploring integrated mobile applications, and using popular mobile technologies, such as iPads, on forklifts. Lift truck drivers can use such devices and applications to access warehouse management systems and other specialized applications, or enter data through bar-code scanning, voice, and RFID.

Cost is one factor helping drive adoption of mobile devices and applications. While an industrial grade forklift-mounted computer can cost between $2,000 and $3,000, an iPad averages about $500. Tablets can also be taken off the forklift and used on the floor, which some companies find beneficial.

But iPads weren't designed for this use, and lack the required ruggedness. Computers mounted to forklifts experience substantial vibration, which can wear down internal components. In addition, tablets are not practical in cold storage environments, which create additional power demands and usability challenges to prevent frost and condensation damage. A sturdy vehicle mount and a ruggedized case can potentially mitigate such challenges, however, and the market is beginning to respond by offering these accessories.

Battery life is another consideration. Forklift-mounted computers run off the vehicle's power supply, but tablets typically run from their own battery. Therefore, a DC-to-DC power converter is required to use a tablet on a forklift.

Compatibility can also be an issue. New computers are not always compatible with legacy applications. In such situations, software development may be required to make the tablet compatible with legacy applications, provide terminal emulation, and accept bar-code, RFID, and voice input.

"When considering technology purchases, it is imperative to compare the total cost of ownership, including the cost of peripherals and accessories, downtime and device lifecycle, and the time required for installation, maintenance, device management, and support," says Joe LaFergola, manager of business and information solutions for Raymond Corporation. "Nonetheless, iPads and similar devices are becoming more common for control and monitoring applications in the warehouse."

New programs for such devices are allowing for some innovative applications as well. For example, Select Equipment Sales Inc., a Buena Park, Calif.-based lift truck distributor, recently launched Forklift Safety Pro, a daily inspection mobile application for Apple's iOS platform. Similar to the safety application built into iWarehouse, Forklift Safety Pro allows lift truck operators to complete their daily or pre-shift safety inspections electronically.

Instead of using a forklift-mounted computer, however, Forklift Safety Pro allows users to perform safety checks using an Apple mobile device. The completed inspection reports are then wirelessly transmitted via email to a supervisor or dedicated inspection form repository.

Other features of the app include a daily safety question, a counter that tells operators how many days are left before they are required to be re-certified, and forms for reporting incidents to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, requesting equipment service, and reporting unsafe vehicles.

Fleet managers can also use apps to train workers or improve their performance. For example, Toyota Material Handling Group recently developed Forklift Challenge, an interactive mobile game designed to help promote safe forklift practices and behaviors. Forklift Challenge allows players to drive a virtual forklift, and experience the type of events that might take place when handling loads.

The game illustrates and teaches skills such as reducing speed when cornering, controlling the mast angle and speed, and leveling the fork. Players strive to achieve maximum productivity while avoiding costly accidents and penalties.

Full Speed Ahead

As lift truck technology continues to advance, businesses will have more options for plug-and-play and off-the-shelf applications designed to make data easier to collect and integrate with warehouse management systems and other automated solutions.

"Eventually, it will be possible to easily capture a large variety of data, and share it throughout the facility and with customers," says Meyer. "It will also get easier to digest that data and use it to make important decisions and changes that directly impact warehouse efficiency and the company's bottom line."

Accomplishing this may become even more important as expected shifts in the labor market begin to take shape. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics projects increased baby boomer retirement will slow labor force growth significantly over the coming decade. Yet, at the same time, demand will grow for new workers to take the place of those who retire.

"Companies will have a smaller labor pool to pull from," says LaFergola. "Technologies that allow more to be done with less, and that cost-effectively improve efficiency, will become critical."

Automated lift trucks, telematics, and integrated mobile applications may be the trends to watch in lift truck technology today—but there is no telling what tomorrow may bring.