For some time now, the materials handling sector has been bracing itself for the much-heralded ‘Warehouse of the Future’. Closely related to the ‘Factory of Future’, this is a place in which waste is minimised, efficiency is maximised, and safety is maintained. It is a place where connectivity and the Internet of Things are the order of the day, AGVs come as standard, and employees are well-trained.
While in many cases this scenario is already a reality, full automation of this type has not yet arrived everywhere. For most businesses, in most parts of the world, automation is by necessity more a matter of evolution than revolution. It involves the gradual introduction of things like smart forklift attachments to improve performance.
“Smart technologies are an incremental step between current systems and fully autonomous systems that could require extensive facility changes,” says Kevin Estes, product manager at OE Attachments, a US-based manufacturer of materials handling products and attachments.
“They allow the customer to maintain current building footprint, infrastructure and storage layouts.”
Pointing to the Kaup Smart Load Control (SLC) system as an example, Estes explains that, while intelligent systems started out as integral to the forklift itself, the technology is now tending to shift away from the forklift to the attachment.
“This makes installation of smart attachments easier and less reliant on co-ordination of different manufacturers working together to make one system fit another. The new trend is to make our smart features on-board the attachment,” he says. “It allows them to seamlessly work with any manufacturer’s (forklift) regardless of the existing onboard tech.”
Independent of the forklift to which it is attached, the Kaup SLC only requires a DC voltage supply and standard hydraulic hook-ups from the truck. Nothing is required to be added in the hydraulic or electronic controls for proper operation.
The clamps self-adjust to the required pressure to effectively lift the load without the possibility of the operator inadvertently over-clamping or damaging the product or its packaging. In addition, the attachment continues to adjust the clamp force as needed when driving over rough or uneven surfaces without any additional hydraulic control lever input from the operator.
“Once installed the operator simply clamps the product, and the display screen gives a green ‘go’ signal indicating the clamp has control. The operator can then move as needed without damage to the product from over-clamping or dropping the item due to rough surfaces,” says Estes.
Carlo Fallarini, global marketing director at Bolzoni, agrees that reducing the risk of load damage is a key market driver and says that the implementation of smart attachments is one of the best ways to achieve this.
“CTX paper roll clamps or Easy Move home appliances clamps are able to autonomously make decisions concerning how much pressure we need to apply in the clamping cylinders in order to lift the load without damaging it (and) this can increase the speed of operations and reduce the damage cost,” he says.
The Easy Force touchscreen, a unit that is suitable for use alongside any Bolzoni clamp (but most notably with roll clamps and white goods clamps), is another recent introduction. Installed in the forklift cabin, it allows the operator to easily choose the type of product and load configuration to be handled.
“Easy Force takes the responsibility to drive the correct clamping force to the attachments. No risk of mistake and consistent repetitive quality of the handling operations. The system is operator friendly and based on (an) advanced industrial heavy-duty touchscreen,” says Fallarini.
Beyond damage minimisation, another advantage of Bolzoni Easy Force is its capacity to connect with a web portal and store information of relevance to the handling operation. Including everything from GPS localisation and tensorized technical handling parameters, to selected load configurations and the number of clamping events, this data is available for analysis by the warehouse manager, and can eventually be connected to the WHM system.
Smart attachments such as these introduce effective traceability to the warehouse environment. According to Peter Soetens, CEO of Intermodalics, this is something which until now has not been properly addressed.
“The idea is that we keep the flexibility of the driver and the forklift, and add the reliability and traceability of fully automatic handling systems,” says Soetens.
“The market is looking for ways to eliminate (daily) inventory counting, wrong shipments and handling errors or accidents. Warehouse operations are full of manual checks, be it by re-reading barcodes in every step in the process, marking pallets or counting by hand.
“Yet, the best process is no process and every extra check takes time and, in turn, depends on proper execution. Enter smart technologies that take over this checking and tracking process without operator input and eventually eliminating the need for checks at all.”
Intermodalics’ imSight solution is a data collection layer designed to gather forklift-related information for processing by a central server.
Customers using the platform are provided with a small onboard computer, which is accessible from their existing truck terminal screens and connects to a camera mounted on the forklift roof (and also, optionally, to sensors on the forks and the driver’s barcode reader). Much like a GPS system, the camera tracks the location of the forklift around the warehouse.
The imSight server combines this location data with the barcode scans and payload data to serve various warehouse operation scenarios. Most simply, the platform acts as an indoor telematics solution, showing which drivers and trucks are operating at which times and in which locations.
Beyond that, when barcode readers are integrated, the platform is able to pinpoint locations (at all times) on a warehouse map. Or, with the addition of a smart attachment that measures the pick-up and drop-off of payloads, it has the capacity to check and record; to confirm to drivers whether or not they are carrying the correct payload and so on.
Sophisticated and multi-functional
Unlike traditional forklift attachments, which are simple in terms of operation and generally suitable for single functions, smart attachments are sophisticated and multi-functional. As such, the market for them is growing rapidly.
“In the future, intelligent attachments will be widely used in environments with complex handling, repetitive handling and high operating requirements. The market potential is huge and the demand is obvious,” says Hongyu Yang, institute director of Hangcha Kangli Forklift Attachment.
“The ‘smart attachment’ will become a key element of the entire ‘smart logistics chain’, connecting the upstream and downstream of logistics, and promoting the further rapid development of this industry.”
Asked about the products his organisation currently offers in this space, Yang points to the Electric Fork Positioner Series and the Forklift Scale, both of which are used extensively in a range of industries including food, smelting, rubber, photovoltaic and petrochemical.
Powered by an electric linear actuator, the Electric Fork Positioner is designed to deliver precise control and stable operation without the need for hydraulic oil. As such, the potential for pollution from this source is eliminated. Easy to maintain and modify, its features include overload protection to prevent damage caused by incorrect operation.
Delivering similar levels of precision, Hangcha’s Forklift Scale employs digital pressure sensor technology and realises it through algorithm compensation and communication protocol. Featuring wireless data transmission and information-sharing capability, it is designed to quantify the handling capacity of forklifts, and therefore help users to manage storage, loading and unloading, material turnover and so on, in a refined, digital manner.
Dimensioning, weighing and scanning
Jacob Blom, Sales Director of Parceltools Europe BV, a manufacturer and supplier of portable dimensional weight calculation equipment for the transport, postal and logistics industries, has a slightly different take on the rise of smart attachments. For him, it represents the transformation of forklifts into data hubs.
“Forklifts are a crucial element in fast cargo forwarding. In this field, the need for speed and efficiency is paramount. One crucial element of this is that companies know exactly what the load is. They need to know the weight and volume, where the load comes from and where it is headed,” Blom says.
In terms of accurate dimensioning (i.e. measuring the space an object occupies), the options include the use of camera systems of various types. While these are effective, they are not without their drawbacks.
In the case of static overhead camera systems, the pallet needs to be placed on the ground for an accurate volume measurement, a process that takes valuable time and requires a fixed place. Then, in the case of dynamic overhead camera systems, the pallet stays on the forklift which drives slowly through a measurement portal. While these systems are reasonably fast, they still require a fixed location.
The alternative, according to Blom, is Parceltools’ Cubetape. A manual solution designed for volume measurement, this Bluetooth-enabled device is particularly recommended for small depots or to measure oddly-shaped freight which is unable to fit under camera or conveyor belt systems.
“To use the Cubetape, the operator simply scans the barcode manually and takes the measurements – all data, including the weight is then transferred to a server…with APIs transferred to the host system of the client,” says Blom.
Getting more out the door faster
The final word on the rise of the smart attachment goes to Rick Whiting, head of global product management at Cascade Corporation. For him, the recent influx of products of this type represents an advantage on many fronts.
“Integrating the forklift or AGV and attachment allows for a more complete set of telematics, enabling predictive maintenance and offering a more accurate dataset for customer analysis,” Whiting says.
“For the businesses which operate forklifts, new technologies will provide a more efficient, user-friendly attachment while decreasing damage and operational costs. These intelligent products enable precision load handling allowing the driver to achieve perfect load position, clamp force and more, leading to reduced damage and greater efficiency.
“From an attachment manufacturer standpoint, these technologies drive operational efficiencies for the end customer … and can also decrease energy consumption. For example, all-electric solutions for AGVs - (such as the) Cascade Electrix line of attachments, like our Electric Sideshifter - maximise energy efficiency and can be up to 90% more efficient than hydraulic units in the same class.”
Beyond the Electric Sideshifter, Cascade Corporation offers a range of products that fit into the ‘smart attachment’ category. These include Sensor Forks, which are designed to provide visibility to forklift operators; the Cascade Activweigh, which integrates ‘Weigh-In-Motion’ capabilities with sideshifting and fork positioning functionality; Cascade Weigh Forks, which combine transport and weighing into a single step; and more.
Products like these – and indeed all the smart attachments mentioned in this article – are just the thing for customers looking to move forward and improve their bottom line. Or as Whiting puts it, they are perfect for anybody interested in “how they can get more out the door faster, with less product damage.”
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For this report we interviewed the following industry specialists: