Today, just as it’s been for several decades, forklifts are a common sight in warehouses. They are a vital part of the entire warehousing process – from taking new products off the truck for storage, to moving them to different shelving areas, to putting them back on a truck for delivery. But with automation, robots and other new technologies, some people in the industry are starting to wonder if forklifts will have any place in the warehouse of the future. Are they becoming obsolete?
An Increased Use of Automation
Led by companies such as Amazon, many warehouses are moving to more automated storage and retrieval processes. As this technology and robotics improve, it has become faster and cheaper to make use of automation in warehouses. Using barcodes and scanners (or similar technologies), these robots can accurately select inventory, or entire pallets of products, move them to a new location, and update information in the inventory system. Everything is done quickly and efficiently.
This equipment can interface directly with Production, Shipping and Inventory systems. Technology in the warehouse can now instantly receive a customer order, find the correct shelf or bin, pull the necessary number of items, and place them with other ordered items for shipping. Once the packing is complete, an Automated Guided Vehicle (AGV) can take the box to the truck. Forklifts won’t be needed in any part of the process since AGVs are basically self-driving forklifts.
Fewer People Are Needed
It also requires less people. Rather than hiring a number of forklift drivers and other employees, one single person can operate a fleet of AGVs. The only area where a human may be needed is the actual packing of the box, and then that’s really only necessary if there are multiple items of different sizes or if the items are fragile and need to be carefully wrapped. In some cases where this does not apply, robots can even package up the materials.
A Reduction in Risk
Because fewer people are now needed on the warehouse floor, the warehouse overall will become safer. Even if robotic forklifts and other machines were to crash into each other, no one would actually get hurt. Vehicle operators do not have to worry about back and neck pain from awkward posture, continually reaching for levers, and climbing up into the forklift. When people do need to be involved, the robots can hold pallets at the optimal height so there is no need to bend down or reach up while moving heavy items.
A Reduction in Errors
When humans are involved, there is always the chance of errors being made. While robots may not be absolutely perfect, there are far fewer issues with inventory control. There is little risk of a robot selecting the wrong item or selecting too many or too few items. An automated system is not likely to forget to adjust the number of items or pallets in the inventory or forget to log a change in inventory location, since each device has its own built-in location tracker.
A Slow Shift
Getting back to the original question of what role forklifts will play in the future, there is no need to worry quite yet. While automated picking systems may have started replacing the forklift in some warehouses, Forklifts are not likely to vanish from the warehouse tomorrow, especially not in smaller warehouses. Automation technology tends to have a greater return on investment when implemented in larger facilities, resulting it its use being somewhat limited in smaller ones (cloud-based solutions, however, are changing this paradigm too). Who knows what market absorption might exist in another ten or twenty years!
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