"There's a great deal of potential for innovation"
Our MD Alexander Glasmacher discusses the future of assistance systems in the intralogistics sector
What’s the current role of assistance systems in the intralogistics sector?
Unfortunately, it’s not a big enough one. But in Germany at any rate and also on an international scale we are seeing more attention being paid to this issue, which is important as accidents in the warehouse involving forklift trucks are still a frequent occurrence. Assistance systems that we are familiar with from the automotive industry play a crucial role in preventing accidents between pedestrians and trucks as well as truck-on-truck incidents. That might sound a little overstated, but I want to get the message across in no uncertain terms – in seminars too – that there is a real need for the intralogistic sector to embrace assistance systems.
What has been the influence of developments in the automotive sector?
Many of the emerging technologies in the automotive sector are transferable to our industry. Two of these in particular will influence the development of assistance systems for forklifts. One for instance is the improved interface between humans and machines and how assistance systems on the trucks are actually operated. There’s a great deal of potential for innovation here, for example by using mobile devices such as smartphones and tablets. People are used to these and are familiar with the menu navigation. In my opinion hardware will in future be fundamental to assistance systems for forklifts.
Another is vehicle-to-vehicle communication. If we want to communicate from the vehicle at the moment, we need mobile radio, so a superordinate system. In future vehicles will increasingly be able to communicate with each other or with their infrastructure. We already have an early example of this with our ELOshield product. The terminals which are installed on the trucks communicate in gigahertz radio frequency. So if two trucks are on course towards each other at, say, a distance of 15 metres, they can send out mutual alerts.
Autonomous driving is a hot topic at the moment too. Is this of relevance for you?
Yes, and again we can take our cue from developments in the automotive sector, particularly when it comes to the new sensor technology which is ever more prevalent on the market. We are also active in the field of sensor data fusion. For autonomous driving to function using the latest available technology, various types of sensors need to be fitted to a vehicle. For example a laser sensor, a camera system and a radar-based sensor system. All the raw data is then bundled together and the resulting information enables three dimensional, 360 degree vehicle recognition which can be used for forklifts as well.
We are systematically evaluating the developments in the automotive industry to see which technologies - whether they be hardware or software, sensor technology or radio - we can incorporate into our products. So any new developments relating to autonomous driving enable us to not only improve our current products but also to create new ones. This is not dissimilar to robot technology.
And how is that technology impacting on assistance systems?
Automated picking by Cobots – i.e. collaborative robots is a topic that is high on everyone’s agenda. These can be defined as machines that can travel independently through a warehouse and pick a wide range of different products from racking using an integrated gripping arm before taking them to picking stations. The “collaborative” term comes from the fact that these robots work together with humans. This is an important and intense area of our ongoing research. The question is: how can we offer products that lend themselves to the operation of automatic guided vehicles, and for picking systems in particular? There’s a great deal of potential here and it’s something to aim for. But our core competence at the moment lies in developing safety and assistance systems for manned forklifts – and we have plenty of product ideas in the pipeline.
Using digital platforms, cloud computing and various radio infrastructures will enable us to offer completely new product solutions, particularly via cloud computing. We are putting this to use just now with the development of a new fleet management system which will require no in-house installation of software on the part of our customers. Instead, they will be able to use a cloud application to view all the data that is collected from the forklifts with our systems. These are automatically evaluated by dashboards and data analytics.
Another interesting area is indoor localisation, which enables the position of a person or a vehicle in the warehouse to be tracked with centimetre precision. If an employee’s location can be accurately identified with the help of an assistance system, many risky situations can be averted. And this is vital when humans and machines are working in close proximity.
And lastly – looking ahead: in your opinion what will forklifts look like in a few years’ time?
Forklifts will increasingly resemble the cars of today and will be fitted out with numerous assistance systems. The technological innovations in the automotive industry will influence the development of new systems and the differentiation of existing products. The intelligent intermarriage of software, sensor technology and radio will be a decisive factor as to who has the competitive edge when it comes to forklifts too. For us, the disruptive changes we are seeing through digitisation and advancements in autonomous driving present the perfect opportunity to create even more innovative assistance systems for materials handling equipment as well as other brand new products for the intralogistic sector as a whole.