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Thomas R. Cutler

Innovation

Autonomous Forklifts Replace Manned Forklifts, One Unit at a Time

Several factors contribute to manned forklifts being more dangerous than autonomous varieties

Published: Thursday, October 15, 2020 - 12:03

More than 80 percent of U.S. food manufacturing plants operating today were built more than 20 years ago and may lack safety features. The average age of manufacturing assets and equipment currently in operation in the United States, according to IndustryWeek, is close to 20 years, and since 1990, the age of assets has virtually doubled.

This means equipment such as conveyors, pallet jacks, and tuggers represent myriad potential safety hazards. Addressing those issues means that more maintenance, more labor, more training, and more certifications are required, all of which come with a steep price tag.

These safety concerns also apply to forklifts. In food processing plants, a manned forklift is the most dangerous piece of machinery onsite. Although manned forklifts account for only 1 percent of all food warehouse or factory accidents, they tend to be more serious than others, accounting for 10 percent of all physical injuries. According to OSHA, on average forklifts account for about 85 or more deaths every year. Manned forklift accidents result in serious injuries, averaging 34,900 annually; less serious injuries related to manned forklift accidents reach 61,800 each year. A forklift overturning is the most common incident, accounting for 24 percent of all forklift accidents, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

These manual forklift accident statistics are driving the adoption of autonomous forklifts in the food sector.

Manned forklifts vs. autonomous forklifts

Food plant managers must view every piece of equipment as a potential environmental safety hazard; more equipment means more potential hazards. Food manufacturers are adopting autonomous forklifts faster than any other industry.

Several factors contribute to manned forklifts being more dangerous than autonomous forklifts.

A picture containing sitting, person, blue, light  Description automatically generated
Global AGV Autonomous Forklift

Speed: Manned forklifts are operated by a variety of individuals within a plant. These units can weigh up to 9,000 pounds, which is three times heavier than many cars, and unlike autonomous forklifts, manned units can travel at whatever speed the operator wants, up to 18 mph. And unlike a car, manned forklifts only have brakes in the front, making it harder for the operator to stop. Speed constraints are defined in autonomous forklifts, and sensors help ensure these forklifts don’t have to make emergency stops. (An autonomous forklift doesn’t navigate around the obstacles; it stops without making a hard stop.)

Weight distribution: Manned forklifts are heavier in the rear to compensate for the heavy loads being carried in front. This uneven weight distribution makes a forklift difficult to handle for an operator, whereas an autonomous forklift is properly counterbalanced. An autonomous forklift, such as the Global AGV L12, is weighted to the center of the unit, making it more stable. 

Control: A manned forklift is turned by the rear wheels, causing the rear end to swing outward. This increases the chance of tipping over during tight turns or the forklift hitting racks or objects with the rear end. Operators must be properly trained to understand these constraints. AGVs are also turned using rear wheels, but autonomous forklift programming anticipates and compensates for rear swing.

Sight line: Loads that are carried in the front of a manned forklift obstruct the view of the driver. This is never the case with an autonomous forklift, which has vision guides and will stop when it detects an obstruction.

Training: According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the full cost of a fork truck operator in a food manufacturing facility averages $44,276 annually in the United States. That doesn’t include the training mandated by OSHA, which requires that forklift operators be trained and certified to operate the powered industrial truck in the workplace. Operators’ performance also must be evaluated every three years, per the provisions of 1910.178(l)(3).

OSHA training obviously isn’t required for autonomous forklifts in the food processing or manufacturing space. The units are programmed for safety.

Small, autonomous forklift fleets, including single units, are possible

Autonomous forklifts create economical capital efficiencies without compromising environmental safety and requirements in the food manufacturing plant. It makes sense to replace retired manned forklifts with autonomous forklifts.

According to Gert Jensen, Global AGV’s vice president of sales for the United States and Canada, “A single autonomous forklift offers a dynamic flexibility, scalability, and reliability. Even one unit reduces product damage and alleviates the ergonomic impact of repetitive, physically demanding tasks in highly complex manufacturing operations.”

The plant square footage of older food manufacturing, packaging, and processing facilities are often less than 50,000 sq ft. Much of the movement is A to B (finished packaged food to the dock, for example). Few companies need large fleets of autonomous forklifts; a single autonomous forklift could be deployed to replace retired manned forklifts. In fact, according to the “2020 Lift Truck Acquisition and Usage Study” from Modern Materials Handling, 49 percent of companies plan to acquire fewer than 10 forklifts this year, with 17 percent planning on fewer than three.

However, although replacing a single or several manned forklifts is as easy as ordering them, few autonomous-forklift companies want to sell a single unit. Global AGV is an exception.


Justification of moving to an autonomous forklift

The illustration above shows an “apples to apples” comparison of the variables when replacing a retiring forklift with an autonomous forklift. Ultimately, the significant value proposition of migrating even a single manned forklift to an autonomous one is achieved in labor cost savings, reduction of collisions, and reduced damaged goods.

Autonomous forklifts herald the beginning of the microfactory

The microfactory is the next “big” thing for manufacturing. Traditional manufacturers have been slow in adapting digital transformation, yet microfactories change that lagging status. Microfactories are small-to-medium scale, highly automated, and technologically advanced manufacturers; they require less energy, less material, and a smaller labor force due to high-tech automated processes.

As with many businesses throughout the pandemic, manufacturing has had to adapt to the circumstances. Larger projects have been scaled back while supply chains have been heavily disrupted.

Despite manufacturers’ enthusiasm for spending on state-of-the-art automation technology, the sector is still falling behind regarding digital transformation. Leading application industries currently using microfactories for commercial production include food processing and packaging, automotive, consumer appliances, and garment.

Autonomous forklifts serve as an introduction to the new concept of “factories-as-a-service” as industry becomes less reliant on manual processes and better prepared for the next disruption. Ultimately, microfactories using just one autonomous forklift democratize how products are manufactured. The result is that plant managers, operation managers, and QA/QC professionals are enabled to advance the lean manufacturing principle of continuous process improvement; these efficiencies can start with an autonomous forklift.

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About The Author

Thomas R. Cutler’s picture

Thomas R. Cutler

Thomas R. Cutler is the President and CEO of Fort Lauderdale, Florida-based, TR Cutler Inc., celebrating its 21st year. Cutler is the founder of the Manufacturing Media Consortium including more than 8000 journalists, editors, and economists writing about trends in manufacturing, industry, material handling, and process improvement. Cutler authors more than 1,000 feature articles annually regarding the manufacturing sector. More than 4,500 industry leaders follow Cutler on Twitter daily at @ThomasRCutler. Contact Cutler at trcutler@trcutlerinc.com.