Are Self-Driving Forklifts Really Necessary?

Driverless forklift with Transbotics’ Natural Navigation AGV.
(Courtesy: MHI)

On the surface, it would make sense for businesses to invest in self-driving forklifts. After all, they theoretically can work 24 hours a day and require much less future investment than human workers.

Plus, they don’t complain, won’t call off sick, and don’t need vacations or coffee, lunch or bathroom breaks. Robotic forklifts would seem the perfect alternative for forward-looking materials handling operations, right?

Not necessarily.

New Technology

For one thing, despite all the hullabaloo about how self-driving forklifts will be fixtures in future workplaces, for the present, they still haven’t ironed out all their problems. While they are efficient at following orders and can even detect obstacles and other impediments, they are still machines.

As such, self-driving forklifts — and self-driving cars, for that matter — still have trouble understanding unknown situations. And while some automated vehicles have a version of artificial intelligence that allows them to “learn” from their mistakes, even the smallest error can result in property damage or, even worse, injury or even death to a human worker.

AGV Limitations

Basic automated guided vehicles are already commonplace in many warehouses and docks. Internet retailing giant Amazon uses them in their hundreds of distribution centers. But these vehicles are designed to perform simple, straightforward tasks such as moving a pile of boxes along the same route from Point A to Point B over and over again. They don’t necessarily improvise or make snap decisions the way human forklift drivers can.

Reprogramming these AGVs can take time and effort. And every new task can require engineers to go back to the drawing board. While their abilities are likely to improve in the future, in the here and now they are limited in what they can do.

Forklift Driver Shortage

For all their faults, humans are still much more adaptable than robots. They can make decisions, find solutions, and follow complex, ever-changing instructions. And they usually can do it pretty much on the fly.

Despite huge advancements in materials handling technology, human forklift drivers are will in huge demand. In fact, a national shortage in qualified forklift operators is reportedly driving up wages as businesses compete for people with the materials handling skills necessary to keep their operations running smoothly.

While some self-driving forklifts already exist and more advanced versions are certainly coming in the not so distant future, for the time being, human forklift operators have job security.

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