Technical contribution: assistance systems on the rise
Intralogistics sector: can we learn from the automotive industry?
According to a survey carried out in 2014, 50% of forklift drivers1 rely purely on their own senses - sight and sound - when operating their vehicles. This is in stark contrast to motorists, who have been able to benefit from assistance systems such as vehicle dynamic and distance controls, which have been standard features in new cars for some years now. And for good reason, as they substantially improve safety and comfort. So how can the intralogistics sector learn from and replicate this success?
In the UK, five workers are seriously injured or killed in incidents involving forklift trucks every week day2. Whilst the number of industrial accidents is generally falling, this tendency is sadly not applicable to the operation of forklift trucks. Accidents happen when drivers are distracted, when they are reversing and when individuals are present within a truck’s blind spot. Direct parallels to the automotive industry can be drawn here: impaired visibility or lack of concentration played a major part in causing accidents and this led to a 30% annual rise in the adoption of assistance systems between 2013 and 2015. Statistics prove that over 80% of motorists believe that these electronic “guardian angels” make driving much safer.
Optical, acoustic, tactile
Assistance systems on forklifts follow the same principles as those for cars: they give optical, acoustic or tactile warnings to alert the driver before or during potentially critical situations. They can also semi-autonomously or autonomously take control of the drive, steering or signalling functions, and these integral warning systems constitute a protective surrounding shield. The use of high frequency technology also allows them to monitor specific designated hazardous zones or a defined radius around vehicles and personnel.
The transition from outdoor to indoor operation is a further area of particular concern when it comes to safety. Driving speeds tend to be higher outside, and have to be reduced indoors. Radar based systems can automatically lower the speed when a truck transitions inside and then reverse the procedure in the opposite direction. Safety and productivity can also be enhanced by the use of so called fleet management systems. These can ensure amongst other things that vehicles are only operated by trained drivers, that electronic safety check lists verify pre-operational inspection and that shock sensors report any improper use of the truck.
Vehicle localisation will also play an ever more important role going forward. For indoor operation, mesh networks are a promising development. ELOKON will therefore be launching its first mesh based assistance system onto the market in 2018.
Market penetration – a joint venture?
In spite of the latest technology and the availability of products, the adoption of assistance systems in the intralogistics sector has not been as widespread as in the automotive sector and one has to question why this is the case. As a provider of these systems, ELOKON has identified three specific issues.
Firstly, there needs to be concrete evidence of their effectiveness – coming from either the supplier itself or as a result of studies from independent bodies or trade associations. Secondly, better collaboration between forklift manufacturers (OEMs), professional confederations, technical institutes and the suppliers of electronic assistance systems can further promote the integration of these systems into the electronic infrastructure of the trucks. And thirdly, there is room for continuous improvement of the current technology: better performance of sensors for example, the miniaturisation of sensors, control units and actuators as well as the fusion of sensor data.
At the moment, the sensors fitted to a vehicle recognise any hindrances in its vicinity. This triggers an “autonomic localisation” of the object, with the vehicle itself playing no part in the procedure. But the development of cooperative systems in the automotive industry means that cars are increasingly able to communicate directly with each other or with their surrounding infrastructure and these are often referred to as Car-2-X (X = infrastructure) or Car-2-Car. With such systems, intersection or turning assistants can therefore detect cars that are on a collision course with each other. Warnings of local hazards can prevent accidents and real time updates reduce the travelling speed of a vehicle when approaching queuing traffic. The first products of this kind are now available for the intralogistics sector – the predictive accident alarm when two forklifts are on a collision course for example, or forklift navigation using RFID.
Personal safety is vital
A key factor for the more widespread use of assistance systems in the intralogistics sector is the safeguarding of personnel. Any potential distractions posed by these systems must be minimised, otherwise they will have the opposite effect of enhancing safety in the workplace. The same applies to their alarm systems which should not overly distract other drivers and personnel. Ideally an assistance system should be easier to operate than a car radio. And once again, we can learn from the automotive industry which took its own cue from smart phones: contact-free screens, easy menu navigation, a reduced number of operational controls as well as systems with intuitive and easily understood responses.
Trends2 – the sum of all its parts
As well as the three major current trends in the automotive industry of electric cars, digitalisation and car sharing, the one mega trend out there is autonomous driving – pretty much the pinnacle of advanced, high performance assistance systems. Developers are working on a wide range of dynamic environmental models which enable 360° data capture. These include behavioural recognition of pedestrians, cyclists and motorcyclists, automatic collision avoidance, fully integrated guidance across all speed ranges and narrow lane assistance systems to make it easier for motorists to negotiate roadworks and other tight spots.
The future of autonomous driving
A further major trend in the intralogistics sector can also be noted: the growing use of Cobots - collaborative robots that work together with humans – will make tougher demands on the capabilities of assistance systems. In these scenarios, the priority is to safeguard both humans and robots in order for them to be able to carry out their collaborative tasks as safely and efficiently as possible. When robot arms are mounted on trucks for picking from racking for example, assistance systems will need to be more finely tuned or ensure an extended reach to enable faster commissioning whilst ensuring the safety of personnel within potential risk zones. Only then will reliance on operators’ sight and sound become a thing of the past.
*Study from the year 2014
ELOKON driver assistance / advisory systems
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