Is now the time for robotic lift trucks?

If ever a time was ripe for robotic lift truck sales to take off, right now might be it. With the Covid-19 pandemic accelerating e-commerce for many types of goods, fulfillment centers and manufacturing plants need to move a high volume of pallets to keep stores stocked up and e-commerce order picking systems or manual pick locations topped off with goods.

And while unemployment has risen since last year, it remains challenging to secure enough workers—including skilled lift truck operators—to keep goods flowing to consumers. Sales of driverless robotic trucks stand to benefit under these conditions.

Vendors say that return on investment (ROI) in two years or less is possible for automated lift trucks, but some complexities are involved, like knowing how to phase them into an operation and identifying automated or semi-automated applications that make the most sense.

The other reality is that automated lift trucks are still a drop in the bucket in terms of total lift truck sales. User companies will have to figure out how to justify them and think through how the technology is not just another type of lift truck, but a tool in their automation strategy.

Approximately 5,000 automated lift trucks were shipped in 2019, according to Ash Sharma, managing director with analyst firm Interact Analysis. That may sound like quite a few, but with more than 1 million lift trucks of all types shipped last year, it amounted to 0.3% of the market. However, with a sharp increase in e-commerce in this pandemic year and added pressure on warehouses and other industrial sites to improve on cost efficiencies and order cycle times, Interact Analysis predicts robust growth for robotic lift trucks, which it sees as inclusive of vehicles based on automatic guided vehicle (AGV) technology or those that use autonomous navigation.

Through 2028, Interact Analysis predicts a compound annual growth rate of 64.5% for robotic lift trucks, up from a rate in the 20% to 25% range the last couple of years, according to Sharma. The relentless pressure to find further costs efficiencies, as well as a higher level of safety for automated lift trucks, are key drivers.

“Like other automation areas, one of the key drivers is cost savings,” says Sharma. “A company will invest in automated trucks that do cost more upfront, but it will save costs in the long run because the technology reduces the need for operators, and all the costs associated with that, like dealing with training and employee turnover. The other major factor is that with robotic lift trucks, you get improved safety. There are accidents which happen with human-operated lift trucks, and using automated trucks is far safer, not only in terms human safety, but also in reducing the risk of damage to inventory, trucks or to facility assets.”

While Covid-19 has driven up unemployment this year, finding enough skilled operators remains a concern that impacts automation decisions. “The market environment in terms of employment has shifted somewhat versus last year, but over the longer term, the labor availability issue is a concern that will help drive this market segment,” says Sharma.

Eyeing growth

Lift truck providers agree that automated vehicles are bound to grow in popularity given the continued challenges. And while warehouse efficiency efforts often focus on automated order picking solutions, goods also need to be handled, staged or stored at the pallet level, which presents opportunities for automating pallet moves.

“I firmly believe this pandemic will accelerate the adoption of automated lift trucks, as well as many other forms of materials handling automation,” says Brett Wood, president and CEO of Toyota Material Handling North America (TMHNA) as well as a senior executive officer of TMHNA’s parent company, Toyota Industries Corporation (TICO). “Part of the reason is the difficulty in finding enough skilled operators, but beyond that it’s the increased level of customer expectations around a rapid and flawless materials handling process. Customer requirements are demanding more efficiency than ever before and that in turn drives the need for more process optimization—including automation.”

Wood adds that automated lift trucks can be a good fit for maximizing the efficiency of repetitive movement of pallet loads. “I think automated lift trucks will help with the need to meet higher efficiency goals, because if repetitive processes exist in which goods need to regularly move from Point A to Point B, why shouldn’t that be automated?”

Given the size of the installed base for conventional lift trucks, and the value and flexibility they provide, the makeup of fleets toward automated trucks will be gradual, Wood adds. Some companies may choose to use automated lift trucks for only certain workflows or transition by initially using semi-automated lift truck features. With a semi-automated lift truck, guidance technology can automatically drive a lift truck along a given route, but the operator can take over when applicable.

“Automated lift trucks are definitely a trend, but an operator driving a lift truck will never go away,” Wood says. “There will always be demand for lift trucks with human operators. A human-operated asset is inherently flexible, and technologies such as telematics can provide data-driven insights on their use to help with the need for increased efficiency.”

Before the pandemic, factors like record low unemployment and rising wage rates had already made robotic lift trucks attractive to some operations, says Kevin Paramore, emerging technology commercialization manager for Yale Materials Handling Corp.

Now as the economy and the materials handling world deals with pandemic effects like higher unemployment, the labor situation is different, but due to health and safety policies put in place that keep workers who are feeling ill at home, it remains challenging for DCs to count on having enough workforce. The end effect is that more operations will see robotic lift trucks as part of the automation answer to labor shortages.

“When you consider all the factors like the high turnover rate in warehouses, and rising labor rates as part of what some call the Amazon effect, that makes the return on investment timeframe shorter for robotic lift trucks, down to two years or less for multi-shift operations,” says Paramore. “As a result of all these trends, we expect to see sales of robotic lift trucks increase going forward into the remainder of the year and into 2021 and beyond.”

Companies considering robotic trucks do face a much higher price tag for a robotic unit versus a conventional equivalent, but in effect, it’s unrealistic to compare unit costs, explains Paramore, since robotic units are a system that provides both vehicle and operator capacities.

For robotic trucks, a more apt comparison is the cost of a robotic truck compared to a conventional truck plus the cost of two or three full-time operators, plus other costs of using operators, like employee turnover and training. Other factors, such as safer operations with robotics, which leads to less damage to assets and inventory, can also be factored in.

“Robotic lift trucks are an entire system,” says Paramore. “When we go to market with them, there is a lot of discovery with each customer organization, finding out what they want to automate and achieve. We work with them to understand their goals with automation, and position it in terms of ROI falling within two years or less.”

Over the last few years, adds Paramore, many companies have piloted robotic lift trucks, and some of these are now rolling more out to additional sites or for more workflows. “We’ve had quite a few customers who’ve gone into [robotic lift trucks] with a demo mindset of, ‘let’s go in with two to eight robots for a given process, to prove out the technology and see if there are unknowns that exist,’” Paramore says. “As they see these initial projects working well, they’ll be ready to automate more lift truck processes within the same facility or deploy them at additional facilities.”

Robotics evolution

The types of robotic lift trucks also have expanded in recent years, such that robotic trucks can not only perform horizontal moves or short lifts, but also lift and handle at higher rack positions.

For Yale, says Paramore, it has a driverless truck that can reach and handle loads at just more than 30 feet high, so the “scope” of lift truck applications that can be automated is less limited than it used to be. With the technical barriers less of an issue for robotic lift trucks, what remains are operational factors like available workforce, rising labor rates and increased cycle times, all of which stack up in favor of increased use of automated lift trucks.

Some vendors with robotic lift trucks based on autonomous mobile robots (AMR) technology say that infrastructure-free solutions will open up the market for broader use of robotic lift trucks. AMR-based lift trucks have evolved in recent years to cover more applications, progressing from hauling with autonomous tuggers to AMR-based pallet stackers and high-bay models that can autonomously lift pallets with no need to install guidance infrastructure cues for bay and pick locations.

“What we offer are fully autonomous robots where you don’t need guidance infrastructure,” says Rob Sullivan, president of AutoGuide Mobile Robots. “Having units that truly do their tasks autonomously is the key enabler to delivering on the promise of warehouse efficiency.”

Sullivan notes that the AMR-based AutoGuide offers leverage of the same base vehicle unit and autonomous technology, but have different “adapters.” That means the same base AMR can be a tugger, pallet stacker or a high-bay forklift depending on customer need. “It is a similar design approach to [arm-type picking] cobots, which use a base unit with different end effectors for different tasks,” says Sullivan.

AutoGuide recently launched what it calls a Mobile ASRS, which rather than using traditional automated storage and retrieval system (AS/RS) infrastructure, makes use of AutoGuide’s AMRs, its software, and conventional racking, which Sullivan says is lower cost than pallet shuttles or unit-load AS/RS solutions, but achieves similar efficiencies.

Overall, he adds, the need is growing for operations of all sizes to automate the movement of pallets to overcome labor availability issues.

“There are many operations that just can’t hire enough people and many others that struggle with high turnover,” says Sullivan. “Autonomous robots can reduce these challenges by automating some key workflows, enabling operations to take their best employees and put them on higher value tasks.”

Sullivan also sees the ROI for autonomous robots coming in at two years or less, with both leasing and buying options, although payback time varies based on labor rates and other factors. Sullivan says AutoGuide has looked at how robotics as a service or “RaaS” might work for paying for robotic lift trucks, but the model gets complicated and isn’t really needed given the attractive equipment leasing rates that exist and relatively short payback timeframes for the AMRs.

Getting there

Perry Ardito, general manager of the Warehouse & Automation Products Group for Mitsubishi Logisnext Americas, also expects strong growth for automated lift trucks, but many customers will phase them in by using them for select workflows, while using more conventional lift trucks for other tasks. Another steppingstone to use of fully automated trucks is to use semi-automated products such as semi-automated order pickers or turret trucks.

A semi-automated vehicle, says Ardito, still has an operator on board, but it also has warehouse navigation and sensing technology to obtain task and location instructions from a warehouse management system and automatically takes the vehicle and the operator to the correct location by the most efficient route. Such vehicles come in at a less expensive price point than a fully automated vehicle of the same type, but carry some of the same benefits such as use of optimal routes, and complete accuracy in arriving at the right location, says Ardito.

“For operations that aren’t yet ready to jump into a fully automated solution, or the application doesn’t justify full automation, a semi-automated vehicle provides many of the same efficiencies you get with full automation when it comes to productivity, efficient routes and picking accuracy,” says Ardito.

Semi-automated lift truck technology is proven and has been around for years, adds Ardito. Under the multiple lift truck brands offered by Mitsubishi Logisnext Americas, Jungheinrich has semi-automated options for order pickers and turret trucks, and launched its first such semi-automated products more than 10 years ago. Operators still have to engage the throttle to make a semi-automated vehicle move, but a semi-automated vehicle finds each location accurately, without the operator having to count rack positions or numbered placards, which tends to distract the operator from other duties. A semi-automated vehicle can also pre-position forks for rapid, accurate engagement and lifting of pallets. “Semi-automated technology makes the operator and the vehicle more productive,” says Ardito. “To go from conventional lift trucks to large scale deployment of fully automated trucks can be a big leap. Semi-automation can be one way to achieve some of the benefits for full automation, as can using fully automated trucks for select workflows, and then expanding on that use once you start seeing the benefits.”

Jack Kaumo, director of iWarehouse Technology Solutions for The Raymond Corp., agrees that semi-automated vehicles can be good way to step into the benefits of fully automated vehicles. Semi-automation makes it so operators do not have to think about the optimal routes or focus on finding the correct picking or drop-off points—all they need to do is progress the vehicle with a simple movement. “What that does is reduce the amount of errors that can occur in a process,” Kaumo says.

Infrastructure-free, automated lift trucks based on natural feature recognition will also help grow the market because it streamlines deployment details, Kaumo adds. “The infrastructure free-piece makes it so the customer can literally have an automated truck up and running in one day,” says Kaumo.

Raymond’s fully automated vehicles are gaining momentum, too, Kaumo adds, but the shift from conventional lift trucks to fully automated ones will be gradual simply because of the huge installed base for conventional trucks that are meeting current needs, and the need to assess which workflows should be automated. “It will be a gradual process in moving to automation, but that’s OK, because you want to optimize processes before you automate them,” he says.

Since robotic lift trucks act as a system to automate a set of material movements, you need to carefully assess factors like rack and storage layout or staging points versus what existed before. That’s just fine with lift truck vendors, who’ve evolved from mainly being hardware-focused vendors of conventional industrial trucks. As Wood sums up the need at arriving at optimal material flows for robotic lift trucks, “Automated systems are only as efficient as the other facility processes they support,” Wood says. “Automation is not a substitute for defining and optimizing those processes, and automation won’t fix a broken process. You’ll just get broken or flawed results faster—and on a larger scale.”

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