If nothing else, the last couple of years have shown how important it is to ensure your business is lean and agile enough to change direction with little warning. The most successful businesses, regardless of size, have always known that sustainability is key to longevity and that means embracing new ideas, building in adaptability and adopting technology and improvements in the industry. Melissa Barnett takes a look at some recent innovations in the materials handling industry.
The materials handling industry is often seen as conservative and slow to embrace change. As Thomas Boykin, a supply chain specialist with Deloitte Consulting, has observed, “Flexibility and resilience have always been important, but many companies treated them as nice to have.” The 2021 Materials Handling Industry Annual Industry Report surveyed over 1,000 US companies to understand the barriers to adoption of a range of innovations from technology, data storage and analysis to automation and 4D printing and found that the main obstacles were a lack of understanding of the technology landscape, followed by a lack of a clear business case.
"The overwhelming challenge in the industry right now is that supply chains are operating at maximum capacity..."
In recent years, the sector has seen unprecedented technological disruption and, despite the global pandemic, significant growth. Driven by a number of factors - most significantly, the rise of e-commerce - but also increasing labour costs, environmental regulations and the digitisation of data and analysis, the sector has been forced to adopt new technologies to remain relevant and efficient. The effect of the pandemic has in some areas - most evidently, e-commerce - accelerated growth and changes in distribution. Forbes reported in April 2020 that US retailers' online year-over-year revenue growth was up 68% from 2019, surpassing an earlier peak of 49% in early January. Furthermore, there was 129% year-over-year growth in US and Canadian e-commerce orders from April 2019 to April 2020. The growth of e-commerce during the last two years has been a global phenomenon, seen in both developed and developing countries.
Outside influences affect change
Four main innovation trends have emerged over the last few years: automation, digital connectivity/the Internet of things (IoT), safety and environmentally sustainable equipment design and practices, all driven by the influences already mentioned: e-commerce, environmental sustainability, ever-improving Internet services and increasing labour costs.
Clark Jordan, vice-president of global engineering at Cascade Corporation, believes that the spirit of innovation is at the core of everything his company does. “The overwhelming challenge in the industry right now is that supply chains are operating at maximum capacity, so that every second saved when moving products is critical, and every inefficiency solved is another step towards a more robust system. The various trends at play – automation and digitisation - have been accelerated by this massive demand on supply chains and the need to optimise operations,” says Jordan. Cascade believes that its ‘real’ innovation is the practicality of its solutions. Cascade’s ActivWeigh integral weighing carriage is the first on the market to integrate “Weigh-In-Motion” capabilities with sideshifting positioning functionality. The product allows forklift operators to easily approach a load, adjust the fork spacing, lift and immediately weigh the load while the forklift is in motion. Weight data is automatically recorded during transport and digitally transmitted to a truck-mounted, Bluetooth display. From the display, data can then be communicated wirelessly to an end-user’s WMS for analysis and further optimisation. By eliminating the need for floor scales, Cascade believes ActivWeigh reduces extra travel and stopping, saving valuable time in busy warehouse operations.
Many of the technological innovations for forklifts that are designed to improve efficiency also have the benefit of enhancing safety. Sensor technology is a case in point - not only improving productivity through data collection but able to be linked and integrated to include safety features.
JLT Mobile Computers, with headquarters in Sweden and the US, has designed rugged mobile computers which can be retrofitted to any forklift, regardless of power source. The JLT6012 series has a large range of integrated sensors, collecting data and managing everything from the forklift’s acceleration, direction, battery voltage and current, ambient light and temperature to fuel consumption and servicing requirements. Christian Funk, director of business development, says that the JLT6012 series was designed to adapt to a variety of environments including warehousing, transportation and ports. The integrated sensor technology makes it possible to create software that can help the user or manager to keep track of the devices, the forklifts and the drivers. “Integrated sensor technology can bring endless advantages,” says Funk. “Take in-vehicle safety, for example. We can create software that blacks out the screen when the forklift is in motion. This removes the risk of a driver being distracted by looking at the screen while driving and causing an accident. The same sensors can be used to alert drivers to environmental conditions such as vibration and shock.”
Lucia Minervino, spokesperson for Kiwitron, says that working with clients on specific application needs has resulted in innovation designed from experience. Kiwitron’s Kiwi-eye artificial intelligence detection system for pedestrians and forklifts was born out of the need to invest in safety, while maintaining high standards of productivity and efficiency. The Kiwi-eye system continuously processes real-time streams of video data to detect objects in the environment, eliminating the need for pedestrian tags. Advanced algorithms ensure personal information is not captured. Kiwi-eye detects pedestrians and forklifts within a field of up to 25 m and within centimetres. When an obstacle is detected, Kiwi-eye immediately alerts the driver with an acoustic and a lighting signal with three alarm levels – alarm, warning, safe. The system detects markers positioned in specific areas or above machinery to recognise specific objects and the driver is not only warned to avoid but, if Kiwi-eye is integrated with a control unit on board, the forklift can be programmed to automatically slow down. Kiwi-eye can also be integrated with Kiwitron’s Fleet Management ETS system to make a near-miss analysis and add functions such as: fleet localisation, shock sensor, parameters monitoring, data storage, access control, mission management, analysis and reporting.
"There’s a better way to do it – find it."
Innovation doesn’t always mean developing something new; often it is making an existing product work better. Carlo Fallarini, global marketing manager for the Bolzoni Group, believes real innovation happens by improving either product performance which results in better productivity and safety or by developing a new way of doing something. Bolzoni’s electric-operated attachments have taken their inspiration from the real world to develop innovative solutions, according to Fallarini. The “Intelligent” CTX range of clamps are fully computerised and automated with integrated clamp testing to ensure minimum clamp pressure – taking the guesswork away from the operator and avoiding out-of-roundness caused by excessive clamping force. The new technology also allows for integrated information to be available to both the logistics manager and the operator, minimising risk.
Safety and efficiency are big drivers of innovation, and Arnold Vetter, CEO of VETTER Industrie, says these goals create breakthrough solutions. VETTER's SmartFork technology, an integrated management system, was designed to enhance both. Starting with an integrated camera in the forks, Vetter realised that additional features could be installed such as sensors for measuring distance, occupancy, weighing and incline. “The real challenge was to make these components industrially stable and ergonomic, thereby enhancing efficiency,” says Vetter. VETTER SmartForks can be customised to suit requirements with a range of sensors assembled as per the customers' specifications and all can be fully integrated. SmartFork Flash is a simple but effective safety feature consisting of a set of LED strips attached to the inner and outer sides of the forks. The strips on the inner side of the forks display the entry depth into a pallet for efficient and safe load pick-up. The outer strips have programmable lights for visibility in dark or unclear environments and indicate the length of the forks, visible from a distance.
New and improved energy sources have long been an innovation goal for forklift manufacturers. Chinese forklift manufacturer Hangcha has developed the XH electric forklift series which is a low energy use forklift, employing a permanent magnet synchronous system on the basis of a high voltage (309 V) platform. Eric Cao, product manager for Hangcha says that the new system has the advantages of high efficiency, high torque, small temperature rise, small size and low failure rate, which greatly improves the performance and reliability of the product. Compared to traditional electric forklifts, Cao believes the HX can save up to 20%-30% of energy costs.
The phasing out of fossil fuels is a long-term goal of Konecranes and it appears to be getting closer to the goal with the development of HVO100 fuel. “HVO100 fuel is a 100% renewable and fossil-free chemical copy of regular diesel made mostly of vegetable oils combined with waste and residue fat, a recipe that can reduce fossil-based CO2 emissions by up to 90%. Almost the same as regular diesel, renewable HVO100 can be used in most (but not all) diesel trucks. This is a positive way we can take responsibility in reducing our environmental impact as a manufacturer of heavy vehicles,” says Zandra Wallin, environment health and safety manager at Konecranes Lift Trucks.
When Thomas Edison said “There’s a better way to do it – find it”, he challenged everyone to learn to think beyond the obvious, to make continuous improvements and to not sit on success. Innovation is the result of this challenge and by the look of it, the materials handling industry is up for the challenge.
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