Self-Driving Forklifts: An Automated Robotic System That Many Warehouses Are Missing Out On

Automated forklifts are robotic systems that automate many of the warehouse tasks that human workers do. From alleviating labor shortages to reducing error rates, the benefits of forklift automation are boundless for warehouse/logistics operators.

Self-driving forklifts combine technologies like sensor deployments and Artificial Intelligence (AI) with computer software to ensure the robotic system navigates to the correct destination safely. An automated forklift can benefit any workload requiring heavy carrying and lifting.

While fewer than 1% of all forklifts deployed today are autonomous, that will soon change.

The video below provides some brief background on automated forklifts.

Automated Forklifts in the Context of Robotics

Most automated forklifts ABI Research assessed are considered Autonomous Mobile Robots (AMRs). This means the forklifts can navigate throughout a logistics facility freely without requiring any external infrastructure.

Instead, these automated forklifts leverage technologies like vision Simultaneous Localization and Mapping (SLAM) or laser SLAM for navigation through Two-Dimensional (2D) and Three-Dimensional (3D) Light Detection and Ranging (LiDAR), as well as stereoscopic cameras.

We’ve also seen some vendors offer their automated forklifts as Autonomous Guided Vehicles (AGVs). With AGVs, the robotic forklift relies on Quick Response (QR) codes, magnetic tape, and reflective elements for safe navigation.

Automated forklifts are often integrated with optimization software within industrial, manufacturing, and warehousing applications. Vendors conjoin their automated forklift systems with the following enterprise solutions:

  • Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP)
  • Manufacturing Execution System (MES)
  • Warehouse Execution System (WES)
  • Warehouse Management System (WMS)

Why Are Automated Forklifts Becoming Popular?

Out of all the main categories of AMRs, autonomous forklifts are experiencing the fastest growth. Fulfillment centers—facing increased shipping volumes and a labor crisis—are in dire need of automated solutions like robotic forklifts.

The following trends have given rise to the increased demand for automated forklifts in warehouses and factories:

  • Advancements in robot navigation capabilities, using dynamic obstacles and mesh networks.
  • Interoperability and integration with legacy infrastructure (ERP, MES, WES, WMS).
  • A growing number of partnerships between robotics companies, systems integrators, and maintenance service providers.
  • The democratization of Robot Operating System (ROS) and ROS-2.

Types of Automated Forklifts

The industry has developed the following three form factors for automated forklifts:

Reach Trucks

AGV reach trucks are autonomous forklifts explicitly designed for high-bay, single-selective, and double-deep racking. The typical payload of a robotic reach truck is around 3,306 Pounds (lbs) or 1,500 Kilograms (kg). The lifting height with this type of automated forklift is between 8.53 feet or 2.6 Meters (m) to 36 feet or 11 m.

As an ideal alternative to fixed cranes in Automatic Storage and Retrieval Systems (AS/RSs), high-reach AGV forklifts are best used for put away and retrieval, and interfacing with manual warehouse operations.

Counterbalance Stackers and Pallet Stackers

Some self-operating lift vehicles are designed with counterweights at the rear of the vehicle to eliminate the need for support legs around loads. This automatic forklift system allows the lift mast to be integrated at the front.

The slim version of the counterbalance stacker is known as the pallet stacker. Counterbalance and pallet stackers typically replace repetitive manual forklift tasks for all single, double, or quadruple pallet applications.

The typical payload for a counterbalance stacker is more than 2,645 lbs (1,200 kg), with a lifting height between 5.2 feet (1.6 m) to 27.9 feet (8.5 m). On the contrary, the typical payload for a pallet stacker is around (or less than) 2,645 lbs (1,200 kg), with a lifting height of around (or less than) 6.6 feet (2 m).

Pallet Trucks and Pallet Jacks (Dollies)

Pallet trucks and pallet jacks are vehicles designed to replace manual forklift tasks. The slim version of a pallet truck is known as a pallet jack or dolly. These automated forklifts have support legs that straddle loads with various fork designs, and a slim body that provides a tight turning radius.

The typical payload of a pallet truck is more than 4,409 lbs (2,000 kg), and less than 4,409 lbs (2,000 kg) for a pallet jack.

The figure below explains the three main types of automated forklifts.

This figure explains the three types of automated forklifts.

Identify the Best Automated Forklift Vendors

To prepare you for the robust growth in forklift automation, ABI Research has released its Autonomous Forklift System Vendors competitive ranking. This assessment benchmarks 16 automated forklift vendors by weighing the strengths and weaknesses of each system.

As reported in our press release, the leading companies in the self-driving forklift space are:

But why? And who else should be on your radar?

Grab the report below to find out.

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