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Autonomous Forklifts During the Pandemic : Automation as a Return-to-Work Strategy

by Thomas R. Cutler   |   July, 2020

Fewer than 2% of forklifts sold in North America are automated, yet there has never been a greater need for this technology. Many manufacturers are looking to automate material handling processes because it reduces the potential for COVID-19 exposure by reducing human contact. Though predicted years ago, COVID-19 has made autonomous forklifts an immediate reality for small footprint manufacturing facilities.

Driverless industrial vehicles are getting so much attention now as a way to automate the processes of transporting, lifting, lowering, putting away, or retrieving loads without a human operator. Autonomous forklifts are a type of automated guided vehicles (AGVs), but that term is more commonly used to describe conveyances that typically (but not always) lack forks and only provide horizontal transportation.

Significant growth for this product category was predicted before the pandemic due to a tight labor market in the U.S. Automation was the obvious answer to fill that labor gap, providing continuous 24/7 and consistent performance while mitigating the cost of finding and onboarding new workers.

According to Nic Temple (pictured right) VP U.S. Sales at Global AGV, "Some of the key advantages of autonomous forklifts are critical during the pandemics. A single unit offers a dynamic flexibility, scalability, and reliability that may allow compliance with safety requirements avoiding contamination. Automation reduces product damage and alleviates the ergonomic impact of repetitive, physically demanding tasks in today's highly-complex manufacturing operations.



Autonomous forklifts are seeing an increasing demand by essential manufacturers during the pandemic who demand automation for largely repetitive and routine processes. Frequently, instances where product comes off a production line in batches and moves into an attached warehouse is one of the most effective uses of automated driverless product movement; it generates heightened productivity and throughput. Food and beverage manufacturing and packaging are great examples of autonomous forklift applications.

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Realistically an operation with just a few forklifts will replace a unit every 5 - 7 years. A manufacturer currently operating just a few units will exchange the next purchase in 2020 with an autonomous forklift to discover the true value that automation can bring to the operation. Implementing automation as a scalable solution, will allow for an unbiased comparison of autonomous and manual forklift operations.

Autonomous forklifts provide automation which reduces movement costs per pallet and per case. Many manufacturers track these automation data as key performance indicators (KPIs). These units seamlessly integrate alongside humans, often working collaboratively, unlocking significant productivity advances while also serving to address anticipated challenges resulting from the pandemic, the competition, and escalating operating costs.

Any manufacturer operating two or more forklifts currently, must consider replacing one unit with an autonomous forklift in 2020.



Breakthrough: Autonomous Forklift

Autonomous forklifts finally offer a straightforward interface solution: a simple point to point horizontal movement of pallets. Temple shared Global AGV is happy to work with small manufacturers who have never ventured in the mobile space and simply want to see the merits of a single autonomous forklift, particularly during the pandemic. He added the breakthrough is selling an automated forklift as a product rather than a project. Instead of a $200k installation cost, it can be $0 when using salaried labor. If the manufacturer wants a turnkey solution, a local network of system integrators is available.

Simplicity is essential for small and midsized manufacturers purchasing their first autonomous forklift.

Nic Temple, Global AGV


COVID-19 and Q3/Q4 2020 Delivery of Autonomous Forklifts

Traditional AGVs are often custom-built vehicles with long (six-month plus) delivery times. They use navigation which requires additional infrastructure versus a natural feature-based navigation where no infrastructure modifications are needed.

Temple shared manufacturers are ordering a standard product which can be delivered in weeks. Local partner integrators help to ensure a low-cost quick installation in just days rather than months (and provides a qualified service arm is there to help when manufacturers need them). This is a critical differentiator during the pandemic ensuring all employees are kept safe and following the protocols to keep the doors open.

Thomas R. Cutler is the President and CEO of Fort Lauderdale, Florida-based, TR Cutler, Inc., celebrating its 20th year. Cutler is the founder of the Manufacturing Media Consortium including more than 7000 journalists, editors, and economists writing about trends in manufacturing, industry, material handling, and process improvement. Cutler authors more than 1000 feature articles annually regarding the manufacturing sector. Cutler can be contacted at trcutler@trcutlerinc.com and followed on Twitter @ThomasRCutler. See More Details.

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