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.