In one definition of the term “Internet of Things,” almost all objects have sensors, connectivity to a broader environment, and intelligence. Sometimes the object has just a sliver of intelligence; but it can be much more substantial. Objects can be products, equipment, containers, or other things as well.
Traditionally, the forklift was the backbone for manual material movement in a factory or distribution center, a “dumb” piece of machinery that was entirely dependent upon the operator. In contrast, modern forklifts epitomize the evolution to intelligent, sensor-enabled equipment. Today’s “smart” forklift includes diagnostics that allow the equipment to signal when it needs to be serviced, speed controls, anti-slip technology that monitors wheel spin and improve traction on slick floors, collision detection, fork speed optimization, and more.
Intelligent forklifts promote new process flows in the warehouse. When integrated to a WMS, the forklift’s fork can be raised or lowered much quicker. The WMS directs a forklift to a pick location. Once at the location, the forklift knows whether the pallet to be picked is being stored at a height of three feet, six feet, etc. The operator pushes a button on the console and the forks move at the maximum safe speed, a speed considerably faster than the operator would be apt to move them.
Speed controls can be used to help ensure safety. For example, RFID tags placed in the floor can signal the forklift that this is a busy section of a warehouse traversed by humans. The forklift automatically knows it cannot exceed a set speed, for example two mph, and the governor automatically limits the top speed to two mph in those sections of the warehouse.
The most intelligent forklifts today are built with real-time location systems that allow drivers to proceed to a specified location and pick up (or put down) a load without the need for drivers to scan the location to prove that they have picked up (or delivered) the right load. This solution is designed for full pallet moves in either a warehouse with racks or a bulk warehouse in which pallets are stacked on top of each other.
However, the capabilities described are far from common. Existing warehouse control systems (WCS) have not been engineered for this new age. Going forward, warehouse management (WMS) and warehouse control systems architectures need to be re-conceptualized to enable optimum warehouse performance, whether it be with intelligent forklifts or other forms of material handling that are becoming increasingly intelligent.