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Automated Forklifts

Which Robotic Lift Truck is Right for Your Business?

Are you considering replacing or expanding a fleet of manually-driven lift trucks with automated forklifts? Then keep reading.This guide explains what robotic lift trucks are, how they work, and what to consider when investing in automation technology.

What is an automated forklift?

An automated forklift is an autonomous (driverless) version of a manually-driven lift truck. Automated forklifts follow a series of predetermined instructions, cues or signals to move around a site and complete actions, such as picking and dropping pallets. Since automated forklifts are modified versions of manual vehicles, many offer hybrid operation — enabling a human driver to take over if required.

The work of automating a manual forklift is typically carried out by the lift truck manufacturer. However, autonomous versions are sometimes developed by third-parties (such as LIFTCO).

Note: Automated forklifts are sometimes referred to as automatic/automated guided forklifts (AGFs), driverless forklifts, robot/robotic lift trucks, or automated lift trucks.

What is the difference between an automated forklift and a forked AGV?

This can be confusing, as different suppliers refer to these vehicles in different ways. However, here’s a simple way to think about it: automated forklifts are manual lift trucks that have been automated. By contrast, forked AGVs are automated guided vehicles with forks, which have been designed for autonomous operation from the ground up.

When considering whether to invest in automated forklifts or forked AGVs, it pays to know how they compare. Automated forklifts are often less expensive than forked AGVs. They are also highly industrialized, since forklift producers have a long history of producing robust vehicles in high volumes. However, forked AGVs are usually easier to customize for bespoke applications.

How do autonomous forklifts work?

Automated forklifts move around a site by travelling pre-programmed virtual routes or paths. These paths are typically defined using a vehicle’s supplied navigation software. This same software is also used to program specific actions, which occur at specific points along a route, such as stopping and lowering a vehicle’s forks to pick up or drop off a pallet.

“Globally in 2019, just 0.3% of forklift shipments were automated. However, the market for automation solutions is growing rapidly, with a CAGR of 64.5% during the forecast period to 2028.” Interact Analysis

How do automated forklifts navigate?

There are three key factors involved in a forklift navigating autonomously around a site. The vehicle must know:

  1. Where it is (requiring accurate positioning/localization)
  2. Where to go (routes) and what to do when it gets there (actions)
  3.  How to get there (control)

1. Where am I?

Effective vehicle positioning (localization) ensures the forklift ‘knows’ where it is in the space. More specifically, where it is in the map of the site, which is stored in its computer. Without highly precise positioning data (X, Y), efficient navigation is impossible.

Different automated forklift suppliers calculate their vehicles’ positions in different ways. The most common approaches include:

  • Laser triangulation (also called laser navigation or laser guidance)
  • Vision guidance (also called optical navigation)
  • Natural navigation (also called free navigation or SLAM navigation)

Laser triangulation: works in a similar way to GPS navigation, using a minimum of three references in the environment to triangulate the position. But while GPS uses thousands of orbiting satellites as references, laser triangulation uses a LiDAR laser scanner—mounted high on the forklift’s frame—to search for references around the site. The scanner’s rays are fired around the environment and measurements are recorded as these beams are reflected back off special targets. As the technology’s name implies (triangulation), a minimum of three references must be visible at any one time for a vehicle to calculate its position accurately.

Vision guidance: uses optical cameras, similar to those inside your phone, to recognize features in the environment. The vehicle’s position is then calculated by comparing these features to a 3D map of the site.

Natural navigation: this is a fairly broad term and positioning approaches vary. Generally speaking, natural navigation uses data from one or more laser scanners positioned on the vehicle to calculate its position (these lasers are often a vehicle’s ankle-height safety laser scanners). It performs this calculation by comparing or ‘matching’ data from the laser scanners to either: the cells of a grid-based 2D reference map of the environment (so-called ‘scan matching’); or permanent map references such as walls (called ‘natural feature navigation’). ANT navigation by BlueBotics uses natural feature navigation.


2. Where I am going (and what should I do when I get there)?

Line following Icon

Once the system knows a forklift’s position, the vehicle can move along pre-defined routes and perform pre-defined actions at set points. This programming is carried out in the vehicle’s configuration software (such as ANT lab), usually by the vehicle’s integrator.

In the case of ANT lab, routes are defined in the software by creating lines (paths) around the site. Anytime a specific action is required (such as stopping the truck, or raising or lowering its forks), a node is placed between these lines and parameters programmed in the node itself.


3. How do I get there?

To move a vehicle, its speed, trajectories and so on must be carefully controlled.

The ANT control system, for example, is efficient and easy to configure. Only the vehicle’s maximum speed needs to be defined by the integrator. Its speed during turns and so on is then automatically calculated in order to optimize the vehicle’s arrival time, while still guaranteeing that its payload is handled carefully.

What happens if there is an obstruction in the vehicle’s path? With autonomous vehicles, generally speaking, one of two navigation approaches are employed: path following or so-called obstacle avoidance.

With path following, a vehicle never deviates from its programmed path. In the case of an obstruction (such as a pallet or a person standing in front of the truck), the vehicle’s safety laser scanners detect the danger and slow it to a stop. The vehicle then waits until the obstruction is removed. This approach obviously requires staff training.

With obstacle avoidance, however, the vehicle detects the obstruction but, instead of stopping and waiting, it dynamically calculates and follows an alternate route around the obstacle, returning back to the original programmed path as soon as possible.

In the vast majority of cases, automated forklifts use path following. This ensures that on-site safety is optimized (as vehicles always follow the same routes) and it has been found to be more efficient than obstacle avoidance in industrial settings.

Are automated forklifts safe?

Yes. With their pre-programmed, tightly controlled movements, consistent speed, and certified safety systems and sensors, automated forklifts represent a very safe and highly predictable solution.

With automated guided forklifts the recorded incident level is virtually zero. In rare cases where automated vehicles have been involved in accidents, this is often due to proper safety procedures not being followed on-site. Therefore, as with manual vehicles, in-depth and ongoing staff training is essential.

Compared to autonomous vehicles, manual forklift trucks have a significantly higher level of recorded incidents. According to OSHA in the U.S., during the average eight-year lifespan of a human-driven lift truck, about 90% of these vehicles can expect to be involved in some form of accident.

The highest moment of automated forklift risk is during commissioning, when routes are being tested and staff are getting used to having the vehicles around. Therefore, it is crucial to brief staff on what the autonomous lift trucks will be doing, where they will operate, how their safety systems work and so on. With the right training in advance, the chance of potential mishaps can be minimized and staff acceptance will likely also increase.

Can I use automated forklifts in a fleet?

Yes. Fleet operation is enabled by fleet management software programs, which schedule and manage the distribution of missions to different vehicles on-site. Such software programs are usually produced by the supplier of the vehicle’s navigation system.

Fleets of ANT driven vehicles, for example, can be managed by BlueBotics’ ANT server software. This platform includes automatic traffic control – used mainly at intersections – and ANT server can manage mixed fleets of different vehicle types and even brands.

Advanced fleet software can also interface with a company’s existing site management system (such as WMS, MEP and ERP software), and allow vehicles to communicate with on-site equipment like automatic doors, palletizers, and elevators.

Watch a multi-brand fleet of ANT driven vehicles in action:


Types of automated forklift

The types of automated forklifts available today broadly reflect the types of manual vehicles that are on the market. However, there are fewer automated versions of advanced trucks available, such as reach or VNA models (and for obvious reasons, automated versions of manned order pickers do not exist).

The most common types of automated forklift available today are:

How much do automated forklifts cost?

The prices of driverless forklifts are as varied as their manual counterparts. So, when answering the question how much does an automated forklift cost, the answer is, “it depends”.

What is clear is that the capital investment required to purchase an autonomous forklift is significantly higher than that of a manual lift truck. In the U.S. for example, a basic stacker forklift might cost as little as USD $25,000, compared to $100,000 - 120,000 for an equivalent automated truck. The cost of a pallet truck meanwhile can jump from $10,000 for a manual model to $60,000 or $70,000 for an automated version.

Of course, more advanced vehicles will cost significantly more, such as large-payload counterbalanced trucks, reach trucks and very narrow aisle (VNA) machines.

It usually takes between 1.3 and 1.5 automated forklifts to replace the operations of one manually-driven vehicle.


Return on investment

Although the upfront costs of automated forklifts are significant, the efficiency benefits they bring can lead to substantial return on investment, with these investments often breaking even in as little as one or two years (see below). Leasing schemes are also becoming more common, allowing organizations to minimize capital expenditure in favor of more budget-friendly monthly operating expenses.

“The global automated forklift trucks market size stood at USD 416.7 million in 2018 and is projected to reach USD 786.9 million by 2026, exhibiting a CAGR of 8.3% during the forecast period.” Fortune Business Insights

Maintenance costs

The maintenance cost of automated vehicles is generally accepted to be around 10% of a vehicle’s sticker price per year, compared to 5% for manual vehicles. However, it is also important to consider the cost of commissioning (installing) automated forklifts on-site. This can take several days, or even weeks, depending on the navigation technology a vehicle uses and the complexity of the installation (e.g., the number of pick and drop locations).

How to calculate automated forklift ROI

How long it will take for automated forklifts to provide a positive return on investment versus using manual lift trucks? When calculating this, there are several factors to consider:
  • The cost (sticker price) of the automated vehicle you are considering
  • The cost of its manual vehicle equivalent
  • Its estimated annual maintenance cost (typically 10% per year)
  • The estimated annual maintenance cost of its manual vehicle equivalents (typically 5% per year)
  • The cost of installing (commissioning) the automated vehicle
  • The complexity of the installation (roughly, how many pick/drop locations) – used to calculate commission costs
  • The costs and overheads of the labor being replaced (e.g., driver wages & insurance)
  • The estimated annual cost of any damage caused by the manual vehicles used today

Once you have sourced this information, try running it through the ROI Calculator below. You can also explore the formulas used by this tool in this blog post: How to calculate AGV ROI.

AGV ROI calculator

Advantages of automated forklifts

Automated forklifts, also called automated guided forklifts (AGFs), offer many potential benefits. The key advantages are listed below.

Limitations of automated forklifts

Before making any investment decision, it is important to understand both the pros and the cons. So, while the efficiency benefits that can be achieved with robotic forklifts are very real, there are some potential drawbacks to consider also. Below are the key downsides:

6 things to consider when choosing an automated forklift

In addition to the usual considerations involved in buying a lift truck – such as knowing your reach and capacity requirements, and checking a vehicle will fit down your aisles – there are some important additional questions to address when investing in automated forklifts.

1. Is the system proven in real-world applications?

While manual forklifts are well established and heavily industrialized, automated lift trucks are still fairly new to the market. So, it pays to find out how many units of a particular system are in commercial operation already.

Are there hundreds of trucks in use? Or will your company be the first to install a particular automated model? Be sure to understand the risk you are taking.

If you can, speak to several other users of your preferred model before you sign that final purchase order.

2. How is the vehicle installed?

Can the autonomous truck you are considering be installed on-site in just a few hours? Or will it require several weeks to get this system up and running after you buy? For example, in the case of forklifts that use laser guidance to navigate, your integrator will need to: design the layout of reflective targets around your site; simulate the operation; install the targets, and finally have these measured by a licensed surveyor. This can take weeks. The key factor that determines AGF commissioning times is the type of navigation technology a vehicle employs. Vehicles based on ANT natural feature navigation are installed relatively quickly since no major infrastructure changes are required.

3. How easy is it to modify a truck’s operations?

As your site evolves, there is a good chance you will want to change the routes your automated forklifts travel, and the actions they perform along these routes. Will such updates be quick and simple (e.g., reprogramming paths virtually in software), or will these changes require more substantial, time-consuming work on-site?

As with commissioning times, the answer to this question is determined by the navigation technology a vehicle is built upon. In the case of laser triangulation, for example, modifying routes might be as quick as a few software clicks. However, if your required changes create new zones where fewer than three reflective targets are visible to the vehicle’s scanner, a larger redesign (and reinstallation of targets) may be required.

4. How easily can you expand your fleet?

If your deployment of autonomous lift trucks is a success, how easy will it be to add further vehicles in future? Adding trucks should not mean an entirely new installation project.

Be sure to examine the fleet management options available with the vehicle(s) you are considering. How does this work? Is traffic control automatic?

Check whether a vehicle’s fleet management system ties you to that manufacturer’s vehicles, or whether you connect today’s autonomous forklifts to other types of AGV or mobile robot in future (as you can with ANT) to create a diverse, multi-brand fleet. The more types of vehicles you can connect together, the greater your chances of building the perfect custom fleet for your business.

5. What maintenance plans are available?

Automated forklifts are only efficient when they are working as programmed. So, it pays to know how your supplier will help you keep them running.

The cost of maintaining automated vehicles is generally higher than that of manual models. This is not because the vehicles themselves require more maintenance (less is required, in fact, as robots don’t drive as hard as enthusiastic humans). Instead, the extra cost comes from maintaining and updating the automation project itself.

For example, you might need your supplier or integrator to program, simulate and activate new vehicle routes and actions as your operation evolves. Depending on the navigation technology that drives your vehicles, this work may need to be carried out on-site (for instance if new triangulation targets need to be installed).

In terms of costs, you should budget around 10% of an automated forklift’s sticker price for maintenance each year.

6. Inform and train to build acceptance

This point is not directly related to your vehicle choice, but it is important: Automated forklifts are probably the type of autonomous vehicle that is most likely to replace existing staff. Or at least to take over the tasks they carry out. It is natural then that today’s human team members might not greet your new robotic helpers with open arms.

The more that existing staff are aware of your company’s automation plans, the easier it will be to secure their buy-in and deploy these vehicles smoothly. Explain what the machines will do. And what they won’t. Maybe involve some staff in the vehicle procurement process. And definitely get the team’s input on how automated forklifts should work around the site.

Some companies find that ‘personalizing’ their robots – giving them names or sticking on faces – helps to reduce or avoid vandalism altogether.

Start your mobile automation program today

The benefits are clear: investing in automated forklift technology can boost your business’ efficiency, improve on-site safety, and provide significant return on investment.

So, with the autonomous vehicle market set to boom in the coming years, now might be the perfect time to get a head start on your competition.

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