We do the thinking, trucks the steering

Automation is becoming a major logistics trend, and the industry is demanding flexible solutions. Additional benefit: trucks are better at driving than people are.



A forklift truck pushes its fork prongs into a pallet holding a heavy white sack full of plastic chips, transports it to a rack and sets it down in exactly the right spot. An everyday manoeuvre in warehouse logistics? Not quite. Because the truck's cab is empty. As if steered by a ghost, the orange and grey truck emblazoned with the name 'STILL' drives along the aisle by itself. It lines up with pinpoint precision and places its load on a tray on the rack. The 'tray' is actually a moving shuttle that carries the white sack to the next available bay. Gérard Lacher, head of intralogistics systems at STILL, believes this is the future: "It will become a mass-market solution as soon as it becomes easier to operate and can be configured with less effort."

'Automation' is not a new trend for industry as a whole. But until now, it has been too difficult to build automated trucks that were suitable for logistics, warehousing and goods distribution because the requirements were too complex. A forklift truck has to make its way through a warehouse in which people are walking about and pallets may be lying around. It has to set down its load in the right place and then find its next order. These add up to a complicated sequence of steps.

The challenge for design engineers: how can a machine navigate?

For a long time, there was no answer to the crucial question of how a truck works out where it is within a space. This was a real challenge for design engineers. Initially, automated trucks followed defined routes, for example along rails or magnetic strips. Much more is now possible, and there are many different approaches. The KION premium brands STILL and Linde have trucks in operation that use methods such as laser triangulation to find their way around. Applying the same principle as sailors did centuries ago when they navigated by the stars, the forklift trucks need three points of orientation. This requires reflectors to be put up around the warehouse.

Linde Material Handling has gone even further. Working with experts at French electronics manufacturer BALYO, it has developed a system that enables the truck to navigate and steer entirely by itself with help from a 3D camera. It only needs to have driven through and filmed the warehouse once before. The truck then knows which objects are important racks – and which are people who are standing in the way. Linde's R14 reach truck, for example, no longer needs any external assistance thanks to the MoveBox – as the technology from BALYO is called.


Massilly France, manufacturer of metal packaging, uses the automated Linde truck.

Greater flexibility

The effect? Flexibility. "Customers can make certain changes to the process themselves," explains Tobias Zierhut, head of product marketing at Linde. This is already the case with the iGoEasy from STILL. In any case, flexibility will be one of the watchwords of intralogistics in future. Processes are becoming shorter; warehouses need to be adaptable. Car manufacturers, for example, are launching new models in the market in increasingly quick succession. Previously, four-year contracts were normal for logistics firms, whereas "twelve months is now considered a long time," says STILL intralogistics expert Lacher. This is changing the face of an entire industry, even if the actual consequences are not yet entirely clear. According to Tobias Zierhut, just one per cent of industrial trucks are currently automated. "But we expect this figure to rise to around 20 per cent by 2020," he predicts.

This is accompanied by a much more far-reaching change: "The focus today is on end-to-end solutions," says Lacher. "In the past, customers would ask for a truck and they would get a truck." Nowadays, the fundamental question that STILL increasingly has to answer is: what is the optimum warehouse? The chosen solution might include automatic trucks, but perhaps also automated racks, conveyor belts or the STILLPalletShuttle that moved the white sack of plastic chips to the right place.

"The truck is certainly here to stay," says Lacher, "but the overall context is changing." His colleague Tobias Zierhut at Linde MH agrees: "The industry is experiencing a shift away from iron and steel towards software-controlled electronics and interfaces." The next step has already emerged: machines that communicate with each other. A tugger train deposits a pallet and reports to the system where it is; then a fully automated truck sets off to collect the pallet. This particular vision does not yet exist, or at least is not production ready. But it does already have a name: the Internet of Things. Industry 4.0.

Automated trucks are the better drivers

All this is also changing the role of human beings. "In future, people will work where they can actually add value," states Zierhut. People can make decisions and sort goods, but "I don't need them to drive pallets around."

It is a fact that automated trucks are better at driving than people are. Above all, they drive more cautiously. "A truck is actually a commodity," says Tobias Zierhut. If handled roughly, its paint will be chipped after six weeks – not to mention the unseen effects of jarring on the motor. Companies using driverless trucks end up with fewer accidents and reduced wear. "Trucks simply know to drive over a pothole at just two kilometres an hour, whereas drivers might maintain their speed because they don't notice the difference due to the good suspension," explains Zierhut. Ultimately, vehicle automation is the logical step forwards. It has long been an everyday technology, even in the aviation industry with its strict standards: pilots now spend only 3 per cent of their time actively flying. Above all, however, the technology is more economical.

Nevertheless, to ensure the greatest possible flexibility, it is still human beings who, in the end, decide which processes to automate and which are the ones where drivers are required. That is why the automated industrial trucks at both STILL and Linde MH still have a driver's cab. Sometimes the truck steers, sometimes a person takes the wheel. Flexibility is what counts.