PROMAT 2023 – Driving Forklifts Remotely

PROMAT 2023 - Driving Forklifts Remotely

Having attended Promat 2023 in Chicago last week, it was apparent that the theme of “supply chain technology and automation” continues to be of central interest to attendees and vendors alike.
Promat is arguably the premier trade show in the logistics and supply chain industries, showcasing the latest innovations in materials handling, automation, robotics, software, and e-commerce fulfillment. An estimated 1,000 exhibitors displayed their solutions on a 500,000 sq. ft. show floor with as many as 50,000 in attendance.
MHI, the sponsor of the event, included an Automation Solution Center, which provided live demonstrations of robotic solutions for materials handling, palletizing, and order fulfillment. It is clear based on our workload at OPSdesign Consulting, that piqued interest in robotics, mechanization, automation, human/machine interface, and artificial intelligence applications have been fueled by the tight labor market and increasing operational costs.
While a plethora of automatic truck unloaders and pick-and-place robotics applications were demonstrated, there was one technology that may have wide-reaching impact and is noteworthy for this article – “Remote Controlled Operations”. Just as office employees have been working from home during and after the pandemic, it is now possible for some warehouse workers to work from home as well.
In particular, lift-truck drivers can now log in from their home-based desk, which looks like a video game console, and operate a fork-lift many hundreds of miles away. The lift-trucks themselves are specially equipped with cameras, lidar, and other sensors. This is not science fiction – These systems are now running at many facilities in the United States, Europe and other countries. There seems to be particular interest in the technology from third-party logistics providers (especially in refrigerated and freezer applications which are not hospitable to human drivers and where full-pallet moves are prevalent).
The concept of “remote-control” holds wider reaching opportunities in the warehouse and may be a catalyst for offshoring the direct labor that runs our distribution centers. Will low-cost offshore labor be driving our forklifts remotely in the future? Are there other areas within the warehouse that can be remotely addressed?