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In recent years, there’s been a lot of talk about the future of forklifts. Namely, that forklifts are about to get a lot smarter, a lot more efficient, and a lot more independent. In fact, some speculate that wholly autonomous forklifts are practically on the horizon for most businesses that use lift trucks.
But is it really true? While there have been technological advances in forklifts in the past decade and more in store for the future, how soon can we really expect to see forklifts that can drive themselves, move materials on their own, and operate almost entirely without human direction or assistance?
While some companies currently use automated guided vehicles and other robotic lift trucks, there’s probably still a long way to go before robots take over the warehouse.
Back to the Future
To understand how forklift technology may change in the future, it’s worthwhile to look at how technology has changed other industries.
In the 1970s and ’80s, for example, many auto industry observers offered dire warnings about fully automated assembly lines that would exclusively use robots to put together cars and trucks, essentially eliminating the need for human auto workers. Flash forward to today: While there certainly is a lot of automation on automobile assembly lines, there are still a whole lot of humans working at — and getting paid by — automobile assembly plants.
Technology did transform auto assembly lines, but the process occurred more slowly than most predicted. And robots didn’t necessarily replace human workers so much as help them do their jobs better and more efficiently.
Investing in Technology
Another consideration is the huge investment new technology requires. While automation currently exists in forklift technology, it is far from the autonomous robots futurists have been predicting would replace forklifts driven by good, old-fashioned humans. Most businesses that use forklifts are reluctant to sink huge investment capital in unproven technology, not to mention having to face the expected public backlash that comes with replacing humans with robots.
Then there is the tech itself. In the auto industry, many established carmakers currently are developing self-driving cars. Even companies like Google reportedly are testing versions. But the infrastructure to support self-driving cars on the nation’s roads isn’t yet in place. Most industry observers say driverless cars will require much wider broadband and more seamless connections to the internet than currently exist in most places.
And while communications companies are striving toward a nationwide 5G network that could support such tech, it’s still probably at least a couple of years away. In the meantime, car companies are introducing individual features that increase consumers’ comfort level with fully automated vehicles, such as steering control, self-parking capabilities, and automated anti-collision braking.
For forklifts, the same scenario is likely to play out. While some forklift tech companies may hold up self-driving lift trucks as the ideal, but the reality is probably still many years, or even decades, away from most real-world workplaces. Traditional forklifts are likely to remain a key part of most operations for a long time to come.