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Toyota, one of the world’s biggest manufacturers of forklifts, announced last week that it plans to have a fully robotic, driverless forklift on the market by the end of this summer, at least in Australia.
Toyota Material Handling Australia will introduce the BT Staxio SAE 160 Autopilot Stacker automated guided vehicle (AGV) into the Australian forklift market by August, according to an April 7 report from the Australasia Transport News.
A Turning Point for Automation?
While AGVs are being used in warehouses, distribution centers, manufacturing and other businesses in the US and elsewhere, Toyota’s entry into the robotic forklift market could mark a major milestone in the use of driverless industrial vehicles.
The benefit of driverless forklifts is obvious: Companies can save on labor while boosting their efficiency. AGVs and robotic forklifts can operate 24 hours per day/365 days per year without taking lunch or rest breaks, sick days, or paid vacations. Plus, companies don’t have to pay wages or benefits.
But the big question many industry observers are wondering is this: Will these high-tech forklifts someday in the not-too-distant future make the job of forklift operator obsolete?
Versatility and Efficiency
Tony Raggio, Toyota’s national sales and product manager in Australia, said the driverless forklifts offer businesses more versatility and efficiency in their warehousing and manufacturing operations.
“We envisage the AGV forklift range making real productivity improvements in busy warehouse, storage or production environments where repetitive motions are common,” Raggio said.
Thanks to the labor savings and increased efficiency, the vehicles can pay for themselves in as little as one to three years, Raggio said.
Doing Double Duty
Toyota’s AGV forklift uses lasers to navigate in facilities. It can be used as a stand-alone forklift, or can be integrated with other vehicles as part of a business’s Warehouse Management System.
The vehicle has a load capacity of up to 2.0 tons and can lift up to 5 meters. It comes pre-programmed to work with ERP/WMS/MES, barcode scanning, and voice terminals.
When not operating on its own, the BT Staxio SAE 160 can double as a manual pallet stacker.
Other AGV Forklifts Already in Use
Toyota’s announcement is just the latest move toward more automation in the forklift industry.
Lew Manci, director of product development for Crown Equipment, said forklift fleet management is moving toward “the Internet of things”, in which forklifts can be connected wirelessly to smartphones and mobile computers.
These vehicles can then communicate key data with each other without human intervention, freeing up fleet managers to focus on more important tasks.
“Crown envisions a connected warehouse in which the forklift becomes not only a roving sensor that reaches parts of the warehouse no other system is reaching, but also a hub that collects data from various other devices, acts on this data, and consolidates and analyzes it for other systems,” Manci told Food Logistics.
“We’re already doing some of that through the Crown Insite products that deliver actionable data from forklifts, like the number of impacts and the amount of time the truck is in use, to help warehouse managers improve productivity, efficiency, and safety,” he said. “Following the trucks’ movements through indoor GPS or location tracking is an evolution of that technology.”
Drivers No Longer Needed
Forklifts aren’t the only vehicles that may soon be driverless.
Google already is testing a driverless car in San Francisco. And Nissan engineers reportedly plan to have their Autonomous Drive component available for its vehicles by 2020.