Driverless Fork Trucks Are Ready for Prime Time

Industrial applications of collaborative lift trucks are here, though food companies shy away.

By Kevin T. Higgins, Managing Editor

Judging by the excitement over the prospect of driverless trucks, corporate management has a simplified understanding of what a truck driver’s job entails.

The same probably holds true about forklift operations, although the case for self-driving lift trucks is a little clearer, particularly when those trucks operate in a defined interior space.

Two vendors of self-driving lift trucks exhibited at last fall’s Pack Expo in Chicago, trying to drum up interest in the technology among food and beverage companies, as well as other manufacturers. Clearpath Robotics Inc. is a Canadian firm best known for mobile robots used in research applications. Yale Materials Handling Corp., Greenville, N.C., essentially is bolting on a controls package from the French firm Balyo to two standard lift trucks.

Clearpath’s segue into industrial applications is under the banner Otto Motors, a reference to the inventor of the internal combustion engine, Nikolaus Otto (www.ottomotors.com). Unlike AGVs (automated guided vehicles), which rely on embedded magnets or other guides to dictate and define the vehicle’s pathway, collaborative vehicles like Otto to negotiate the area, relying on laser sensors and data-crunching algorithms to detect changes and incorporate the information in the “spatial orientation” map created when the vehicle is introduced to the work space, according to Simon Drexler, director-industrial products at Kitchener, Ont.-based Clearpath (clearpath.ottomotors.com).

“The underlying technology is very similar to self-driving vehicles,” Drexler explains. “The challenges lie in interfacing with and supporting process applications such as ERP and warehouse management systems.”

Otto manufactures two vehicles, one with a 1,500kg/3.300-lb. payload and a smaller 100kg/220-lb. version. Both have a top-end speed of 2 meters per second, or 4.5 mph, to comply with safety standards. They have limited lifting capabilities of up to 3 ft., although the vertical range may be extended in the future, he says.

The 4.5 mph top speed complies with ANSI B56.5 and EN1525, the relevant safety standards for autonomous vehicles. Yale’s driverless forklifts also comply with those standards, and though they move more slowly than conventional forklifts, that doesn’t make them less productive, points out Lou Micheletto, the firm’s manager of integrated solutions (www.yale.com).

Idle time on operator-driven lift trucks hovers in the 40-50 percent range, he maintains, while driverless vehicles keep working as long as there are pick orders. They also consume approximately 30 percent less energy. “It’s the same principal as driving smoothly in a car and using cruise control,” Micheletto wrote in an email.

Site tests of Otto were conducted at two Ontario food companies, but early applications are in automotive and heavy equipment. John Deere & Co. is applying Otto at its Horicon, Wis., plant, and Toyota Motor will use the vehicles to shuttle tires from a holding area to the assembly line at its Mississippi facility.

Drexler envisions Otto being used in food & beverage packaging halls and other finished-goods areas, not processing areas where sanitary design is a consideration. One automotive OEM has certified Otto for use on pedestrian pathways. “They’re treating Otto like a person, not a vehicle,” he says.

Both Yale’s Balyo software and Otto’s controls package from Sick AG rely on LIDAR sensors. A contraction of light and radar, LIDAR sensors emit a beam of light and measure the bounce-back time to determine distances and make adjustments to the original 3D map of the area. Otto’s light beams typically extend 100 ft. and sweep a 360-degree area, extending the zone as speed increases. Two LIDAR sensors are mounted on the largest Otto and both Yale trucks.

Morgan Hill, Calif.-based Velodyne Inc. (www.velodynelidar.com) produces LIDAR sensors that generate 300,000 data points per second and are unaffected by available light. When LIDARs were applied a decade ago in self-driving cars, they cost $80,000 each. Today, “the core technology is the same,” Velodyne’s Jeff Wuendry says. “The focus now is delivering them at the price people are wiling to pay.” With every major auto manufacturer committed to delivering driverless vehicles within four years, he predicts a price point that food companies can live with soon will be reached.

Both Otto and the Yale machines are battery powered and designed for indoor use only. For multi-shift operations, ROI takes 12-18 months, Micheletto calculates.

“Otto is built to take (material) transport out of the operation,” adds Drexler, freeing personnel for value-added tasks. Transport is low-value work representing 30-75 percent of operating costs in manufacturing, overhead that autonomous vehicles are ready to replace.

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