"There's a great deal of potential for innovation"
Our MD Alexander Glasmacher discusses the future of driver-assistance safety systems in the material handling industry
What’s the current role of driver-assistance technology in material handling?
Unfortunately, it’s not a big enough role. But we are seeing more attention being paid to this important technology, as warehouse accidents involving lift trucks are still a frequent occurrence. The driver-assistance systems we’re familiar with from the automotive industry play a crucial role in preventing accidents between pedestrians and lift trucks, as well as truck-on-truck collisions. That might sound a little overstated, but I want to get the message across in no uncertain terms: there is a real need for the material handling industry to embrace driver-assistance technology.
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 technologies in particular will influence the development of driver-assistance systems for forklifts.
One is the improved interface between humans and machines, and how driver-assistance systems on lift trucks are actually operated. There’s a great deal of potential for innovation here—for example by using mobile devices like smartphones and tablets. People are used to these devices and are familiar with the menu navigation. In my opinion, this hardware will be fundamental to forklift driver-assistance systems in the future.
Another key technology is vehicle-to-vehicle communication. For a vehicle to communicate now, it needs a mobile radio connected through a larger network. In the future, vehicles will increasingly be able to communicate with each other and with infrastructure nodes directly. We already have an early example of this with our ELOshield product. The devices installed on the lift trucks communicate directly with each other via RF. So if two trucks are on a collision course with each other, they can send out mutual real-time 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 newest sensor technology becoming more prevalent in the market. We are also active in the field of sensor data fusion. For autonomous driving to function, various types of sensors need to be fitted to the vehicle. For example, laser sensors, camera systems and radar-based sensor systems. All the raw data is then bundled together and the resulting information enables three-dimensional, 360-degree vehicle recognition. This can be used for forklifts as well.
We are systematically evaluating developments in the automotive industry to see which technologies—hardware or software, sensor technology or radio—we can incorporate into our forklift safety products. So any new developments relating to autonomous driving enable us not only to improve our current products but also to create new ones. This is not dissimilar to robot technology.
And how is robot technology impacting driver-assistance systems?
Automated picking by Cobots (collaborative robots) is a topic high on everyone’s agenda. Cobots are automated machines with integrated gripping arms. They travel independently through a warehouse, picking a wide range of products from racking and taking them to packing stations. The term “collaborative” 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 automatic safety and driver-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 the cloud. We are putting this to use now with the development of a new fleet management system that will require no customer installation of software. Instead, customers will use a cloud application to view all the data that our systems collect from the forklifts. The data are automatically evaluated by dashboards and data analytics.
Another interesting area is indoor localization, which enables the position of a person or a vehicle in the warehouse to be tracked with millimeter precision. If an employee’s location can be accurately identified with the help of a driver-assistance system, many risky situations can be averted. And this is vital when humans and machines work 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 driver-assistance systems. The technological innovations in the automotive industry will influence the development of new systems and the differentiation of existing forklift safety products. The intelligent intermarriage of software, sensors and wireless technology will be a decisive factor as to who has the competitive edge when it comes to forklift safety. For us, the disruptive changes we are seeing through digitization and advancements in autonomous driving present an ideal opportunity to create even more innovative safety systems for materials handling equipment, as well as other new products for the logistics sector as a whole.