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Faster, Smarter & More Mobile

13 March 2015


Like most in the supply chain industry these days fork lift users are at home with technology. Radio frequency identification (RFID), speed zoning, on-board cameras, laser positioning of tines, and even  wireless remote control of low—level order pickers are  all fork lift technology improvements once considered  revolutionary. But what can we expect from the future?  Experts agree, driven by the rise in mobile devices such as ruggedised computers and smartphones, the desire to utilise technology on and off a vehicle in the warehouse, is currently the major area of advancement.     

“Whether it’s a tablet or a flat screen type solution, the ability to do what an operator needs to do remotely from the floor, then come back and connect a device back up to the fork lift as a fixed mount is where I think the market is going,” Peacock Bros. National Sales Manager, George Pecchiar, says. 

Certainly this is where software development has been focused. The latest solution for a fork lift in the warehouse is an industrial web-based browser running on its terminal. The browser controls the fork lift’s computer, interfacing with the scanner and various other functions. It talks back to the server where the company runs its enterprise resource (ERP) and warehouse management solutions (WMS). 

“The benefit of this kind of software is that it’s easier to deploy multiple computers in an enterprise environment." Pecchiar says.  “The browser type solution can work on a smartphone as an option, on a fork lift mount terminal or on a warehouse hand-held terminal."  

Despite this, depending on what a company's ERP and WMS are capable of, Pecchiar says physical applications running on fork lift terminals and even the legacy terminal emulation solutions defined from the IBM 5250 protocols over the last 20 years, are still quite common. “The benefit of having an application on the terminal is that it’s very specific to business requirements or processes, fitting into every single operation in the warehouse,” he says.

Sometimes, when you deploy to a browser type technology with the larger ERP solutions you don’t necessarily get all the business processes built into the application because of the associated expense if it’s just for the warehouse division. If you run an application on the physical fork lift computer, you can build all the business processes and workflow into that application. It suits the warehouse down to every single operation.” 

However, Intermec Vice President and General Manager for Asia, Mike Muller says although interest has exploded in the possibility for consumer grade devices such as iPads or Androids in the warehouse, none of the overseas trials he’s been involved with have succeeded.    

“The fork lift and distribution centre environment is quite a tough one," Muller says. “Fork lifts are not great platforms in terms of providing a smooth ride. Typically the sealing inside a consumer device can't handle the dirt, dust or moisture within the industrial environment.”  

In addition the fork lift is a DC-powered vehicle while the consumer grade products are designed to run on AC.  “So what that means is that you need to get a power  converter and you need to work out how you’re going to  attach that to the fork lift, and how you’re safely going to  run the cable. It all adds cost to the consumer product.

“Often consumer devices can't run with warehouse software and don’t have sufficient ports to integrate scanners, voice-directed systems, or RFID. So you either needs to buy some kind of IO expander or custom develop."  

Finally consumer grade devices failed in longevity.  “Conversely every six months the consumer products change," Muller says.  “So the set—up which worked with the third generation Galaxy Tab or iPad is not guaranteed to work when the new product comes out.” 

Meanwhile industrial mobile computers are getting better. As well as all the usual functions, lntermec's new eMDI mobile computer for example not only reads barcodes at 45cm or 9m it can also scan A4 documents or consignment notes and covert to files such as PDFs and take photos. 

"There are completely sealed devices for low temp environments, such as refrigeration areas and rooms.

“These can handle water and humidity occurring with the movement from a very low-temp area to an ambient location as well as the requirement for wash-downs in food manufacturing, where the whole vehicle and its equipment has to be hosed down." Muller says.  On—board printers tied into mobile computers are also increasing efficiency of warehouse operations. 

“A mobile printer with a charging cradle mounted  on the fork lift prevents drivers from having to return  to an office desktop printer if a pallet needs to be re-  labelled after a carton is removed, or if a pallet has been  incorrectly labelled,” Intermec Managing Director for  Australia and New Zealand, Tony Repaci says.        
In addition Muller says customers now want global positioning systems inside the four walls of large warehouses in the same way as they use it on the road. “We’ve developed a new technology to allow the vehicle driver to use {global positioning system] functionality within the warehouse,” he says. 

While Repaci says the traditional vehicle mount terminal and barcode scanner will remain in use for some time, there is a rise in voice—directed movements using wireless headsets. 

“Instead of having to visually look at a display and press a keypad, we’re seeing the move towards vocalised instructions and validation," Repaci explains.

“A direction to pick up a pallet and where to take it is undertaken using Bluetooth and a little device on the driver’s belt. “This reduces the amount of equipment required inside a vehicle”.

In terms of other future technologies, Pecchiar points to auto deploy robots where the tracking environment is computer assisted.  “You select a particular pallet, it gets picked by at robot and brought down to a conveyor and then the forklift comes to pick it up," he says.

“That technology’s becoming more and more prolific in the industry as well as automated fork lifts that are either laser or camera guided. In the warehouse you’ll find more and more computer controlled robots driving the forklifts around, picking up pallets and bringing them to a staging environment.”  

Despite a patchy start for which cost and complexity has prevented the uptake one would expect given its potential, Repaci says RFID is a growth area for Intermec, both in Australia and New Zealand.

“The development of portable devices that can be mounted on fork lift trucks very economically is one reason for this," Repaci says.

“It has eliminated the cost consideration in previous years where people were trying to integrate fixed position RFID technology, which is very expensive, because it needs a lot of infrastructure.      

“We‘ve actually developed a lot of RFID technology that is specific to portable applications on vehicles. It’s become more cost-effective to do that, so not just for fork lift trucks but also the back of delivery vans or service so that a driver or technician can automatically keep of tools or equipment on the back of the truck. 

We've also seen the cost of the tags come down quite dramatically. That’s making the technology a lot more attractive as well."  Crown Equipment General Manager Marketing, Craig Kenchington says a big advancement has been the development of remote monitoring and fleet warehouse management technologies such as Crown lnfoLink. 

“These technologies are the building blocks for a more profitable future in the industries that we serve," he says.  

“The most important development in terms of technology used on fork lifts is the integration of disparate technologies into a single screen display," he says.

“On the fork lift, this means one monitor capable of delivering all the information an operator needs, rather than the multiple displays required for various data feeds  common today that can actually be more of a distraction  than a benefit.

"Those companies willing and able to work closely with their customers to help them gain efficiencies and increase productivity through the use of such technologies will ultimately be the successful ones.”

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