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Markets in Transition: Self-Driving Forklifts and Pallets: Donít Be Late to the Party
Pallet user guru, Rick LeBlanc, explores the widespread feasibility of self-driving forklifts and the impact of autonomous materials handling systems on pallet quality and specifications for the future.

By Rick LeBlanc
Date Posted: 3/7/2019

While at least some self-driving forklifts have been in the field   for several years (I first wrote about them in this space back in 2011), their adoption looks poised to gain momentum. The rapidly improving technology offers the promise of reducing labor and labor cost, while also boosting plant safety and causing less damage to products and even pallets. But autonomous lift trucks can also be fussier than conventional units when it comes to pallet quality requirements. Keep that reality in mind if you have customers steering in the direction of self-driving machines.

In one recent announcement of note, Amazon made a deal with Balyo, a France-based autonomous technology supplier, that allows it to acquire 29% of Balyo if it purchases $340 million worth of forklifts featuring the Balyo technology over a seven-year term. Other vendors of self-driving lift trucks to supply chain companies include Seegrid, which has several well-known customers. Other providers have also recently entered the market. One of them is Clearpath Robotics with the OTTO OMEGA. Another is Geek Plus Robotics, a Chinese supplier.

While the forks that enter pallets from self-driving machines are similar if not exactly the same as the forks on regular lift trucks and walkie riders, not having a human at the controls can make a difference, according to the experts who shared their thoughts with me.

 “The biggest challenge with mobile robotic lift trucks is variability,” explained Mick McCormick, vice president of robotics and automation for Yale Materials Handling Corporation. Speaking about autonomous forklift applications in general, he noted that variability hurdles can extend to floor condition and other aspects of the warehouse environment, including variability in the pallet/load engagement. “As such, pallets have a substantial impact on the success of any mobile robotic lift truck application,” he said.

 “By comparison, when you look at AS/RS or shuttle systems,” McCormick continued, “all of them have extremely rigid pallet requirements, with a preference for non-wood type pallets in order to eliminate that variability.”

Pallet quality and the idea of using non-wood pallets to avoid poor pallet condition was also raised by Jeff Christensen, vice president of product at Seegrid. He noted that his team sees plastic pallet usage increasing at the same time as materials handling automation. “We attribute this to the benefits of plastic pallets—they are highly durable, consistent in design, and ultimately safer,” he said. “Plastic pallet features are desirable not only for automated guided vehicles (autonomous forklifts), but also for manual truck operators—engagement/disengagement with worn, broken, or bowing wooden pallets is problematic no matter what vehicle type is used.”

He was quick to add, however, that their equipment can be made to work with any type of pallet, including wood. “Seegrid’s self-driving industrial vehicles work with all types of pallets, such as metal, plastic, wood, and even newer experimental materials. The best AGV (autonomous forklift) vendors will work with their customers to ensure they are selecting the best pallet for their specific applications.”

In other words, the problem isn’t inherently wood pallets themselves, but rather the presence of poor conditions or broken wood pallets in the material handling environment. Experience tells vendors that wood pallets are more likely to be damaged and cause problems for autonomous forklifts or other forms of automation.

 “As robotics continue to penetrate deeper in the conventional lift truck market, the consistency of GMA pallets and the consistency of any GMA #2 pallets will be increasingly rigorous,” observed McCormick. “This drives

customers and suppliers towards a more stringent definition of what an acceptable pallet is in a system with robotic equipment.”

As a pallet supplier, the last thing you want is to be late to the party when customers decide on the best pallet for their self-driving forklifts or other automation initiatives. They could decide to go with a very high-priced alternative, or just go with the existing pallet program but quickly become frustrated if the new handling equipment doesn’t perform up to expectations because of broken pallets. Neither one is a promising alternative for the incumbent pallet supplier.

Part of future-proofing your business just might involve early conversations with customers about their automation plans and a mutual exploration of how wood pallets can provide a cost-effective and reliable pallet solution versus other alternatives. Programs can be tailored to ensure the quality assurance of pallets both in the assembly process as well as in circulation, enabling self-driving forklifts to consistently steer the supply chain toward greater efficiency.








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