Are Forklift Drivers Obsolete?

In the rush to new technologies, there are winners and losers. For example, when the first automobiles started to appear, workers involved in the manufacturing of buggy whips and horse-drawn carriages became obsolete. We see the same occurring today as the world transitions from carbon-based forms of energy like oil and coal. Coalmine owners and coalminers are beginning to realize that their jobs are in jeopardy.

AGV forklifts. (Courtesy: QNX Software Systems at flickr.com)

AGV forklifts.
(Courtesy: QNX Software Systems at flickr.com)

With the advent of autonomous forklifts, do forklift drivers have to fear that they are the next casualties in the battle of man versus technology?

Nanalyze, an investment analysis firm, has said in an article published on August 31, 2016, “In the not-to-distant future, robot forklifts may make the term ‘forklift driver job’ go the way of Betamax videos, buggy whips, and 8 tracks.”

The company notes that autonomous systems in a warehouse environment are not new. They’ve been around since the 1950s.

And, most recently we have seen an explosion in the manufacture of forklifts with technologies that allow them to capture data about all sorts of things from forklift maintenance issues to more efficient warehouse operations. Right now these new forklifts need a human driver. However, according to Nanalyze, this won’t be the case for long.

Of course, warehouse personnel are well aware of Automated Guided Vehicles (AGV). They are mobile robots that follow markers or wires in the floor. For these machines to work, an infrastructure to guide them must be built into the warehouse. However, Nanalyze notes that the brand new robotic forklift systems are 100 percent infrastructure-free. Instead of relying on embedded wires or markers these forklifts don’t need lasers, wires, magnets or tape to operate.

The next technological leap for autonomous forklifts is natural feature recognition. In this case, low cost camera technology makes the need for wires or laser-based guidance unnecessary.

And in the never-ending struggle of businesses to save costs, technology innovations permitting a driverless forklift becomes a tempting means to reduce the bottomline.

According to Nanalyze, warehouse pickers are paid up to $20 an hour to fill orders and the average materials handler is paid $47,000 a year. A fully automated pallet jack can be acquired for about $80,000. Return on investment occurs in less than two years. Then, beyond that, it’s all savings.

But it’s not just the reduction in labor costs that is intriguing warehouse managers and cajoling them to make the transition. It is also the safety benefits.

According to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), there are more than one million forklifts being operated in the United States and it is estimated that there are two million forklift operators. The one million forklifts are involved in an average of 110,000 accidents a year causing about 94,750 injuries. Actually, the OSHA statistics show that one in six workplace deaths involve a forklift. That’s a great incentive for warehouse managers to convert their forklift fleets to autonomous forklifts.

Perhaps it is time for warehouse managers to understand how the transition to driverless autonomous forklifts will disrupt their labor force and begin making policy to assist drivers to transition to other jobs.

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