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Lift Trucks: 15 ways the lift truck is evolving

Today’s lift trucks offer more in the way of technology, power and performance than ever before. Here’s a look at the latest innovations available in today’s trucks.
By Modern Materials Handling Staff
August 01, 2011

Remember that old commercial: This is not your father’s Oldsmobile? The same can be said for lift trucks. If you haven’t replaced your fleet of lift trucks in recent years—and, thanks to the recession, many Modern readers parked some of their fleet during 2009—you may be surprised by the technology being built into today’s offerings. The developments include everything from ergonomic improvements for operator comfort to fully automated lift trucks that operate just like an automatic guided vehicle (AGV).

But, not all of the changes are as revolutionary as converting a lift truck into an AGV. “We are an evolutionary industry, not a revolutionary industry,” says Jeff Bowles, product line manager, Mitsubishi Caterpillar Forklift America (MCFA).

If you think about it, that approach makes sense. New lift trucks have to go right to work in existing applications without disrupting operations. What’s more, the basic lift truck remains the backbone of most warehouses, DCs and manufacturing plants. Those evolutionary changes are resulting in trucks that are more productive, smarter and reliable than ever before. 

Modern recently spoke to 10 of the leading lift truck manufacturers in North America to learn about the 15 most important advancements found on the next generation of lift trucks. Here’s what we learned.

1. Automating lift trucks. Automation is coming to lift trucks as Crown, MCFA, Toyota, Nissan and Raymond ready lift trucks that can operate as automatic guided vehicles. Raymond, for instance, has plans to introduce an automated lift truck incorporating a camera-based navigation system from Seegrid in early 2012. The justification for automation is simple: Labor is expensive. “If you look at the five-year economic life of a lift truck, labor represents 70% to 75% of the total investment,” says Frank Devlin, manager of advanced technologies at Raymond. “If you can maximize your labor force, there is a tremendous need for this.” 

2. Bringing RFID to lift trucks. In addition to automated lift trucks, manufacturers are exploring semi-automated solutions. Through its relationship with Jungheinrich, MCFA is bringing RFID- and transponder-based technologies from Europe to very narrow aisle lift trucks in the North American market. One solution relies on a warehouse navigation system that knows where the truck is located based on encoders and transponders in the floor and RFID tags at the pick and pallet locations. Once order picks are loaded into the system, the truck calculates the most efficient way to pick the orders; it will also calculate the lift and drive speeds that are most productive for the process.

“The system will automatically drive and lift the truck in an automated fashion from pick location to pick location without going to a completely automated truck,” says Bowles.

MCFA is also installing transponders and sensors on the truck for safer operations. On man-up trucks, for instance, the system will monitor what’s in front of the truck at the ground level. “It’ll slow the truck until the obstruction is moved when the operator has limited visibility,” says Bowles. 

3. Remote-controlled trucks. Crown is also developing semi-automated solutions that serve the gap between conventional lift trucks and AGVs: a remote-controlled vehicle for case picking. An order selector can drive the truck into a pick zone; while picking, the operator moves the truck from one pick location to the next using a remote control device. That saves the time usually spent getting on and off the truck between picks. “We are trying to bring functionality to the truck that adds value,” says Tim Quellhorst, senior vice president of Crown. “This is a good example of a solution that can drive labor productivity in the less than full automation area of operation.”

4. Lift truck, phone home.  Lift trucks are getting smarter, thanks to telematics—an industry term for the convergence of telecommunications and data collection technologies such as sensors and RFID technology. Telematics allow the lift truck to collect data about the operation of the truck and the performance of the operator and then communicate that information to a system of record. The onboard computer on a Raymond lift truck, for instance, has the ability to send fault codes and the serial number of a truck by e-mail to a technician’s smart phone or computer. “That allows a technician to diagnose a truck and bring the tools, parts and components they need for the job,” says Devlin.

5. Integrating the lift truck with the WMS. Most of the information being collected by telematics systems today is being used to support maintenance and fleet management initiatives. The next step, says Jonathan Dawley, vice president of marketing for NACCO Materials Handling Group (NMHG), parent company of Hyster and Yale, is to integrate telematics with a warehouse management system (WMS). That integration would allow lift truck data to become part of the workflow of a facility. “Using data from the lift truck to improve the productivity of labor could be more important than running your lift truck 1 mph faster,” Dawley says. 

6. The ergonomic lift truck. Ergonomics and worker comfort have long been a priority in Europe, where distributors and manufacturers have a longer term relationship with their employees. That thinking is beginning to permeate U.S. enterprises, especially those with a global footprint. That, in turn, is driving the demand for more European style trucks here in the United States. “We see some of our U.S. and Canadian customers creating a different type of environment for their employees in the warehouse,” says NMHG’s Dawley. “They want a smarter, more productive operator, not a stronger operator.” He believes the attention to ergonomics not only improves productivity, it helps retain skilled employees.

7. Fingertip controls.
Multi-functional controls that can be controlled by an operator’s fingertips are one example of improved ergonomics. With one control, an operator can work the lift of the forks, the tilt angle and the side shifter. “Fingertip controls were introduced in Europe,” says Steve Cianci, director of marketing and product management for Nissan Forklift Corporation of North America. “While they’re not popular yet in the United States, we’re seeing increased interest because they provide a more ergonomic experience for the operator.”

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