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Lift trucks: INRO deploys forklift of the future

World’s first automated, reach truck delivers the goods for dairy giant
By Modern Materials Handling Staff
August 03, 2011

INRO has successfully commissioned the world’s first automated standard reach truck for a commercial warehouse. A Linde RX17 reach truck has been commissioned as the first phase of a potential seven-vehicle deployment at a central North Island site owned and operated by global dairy giant, Fonterra Co-Operative Group Ltd.

A patented system of camera and laser technologies called ‘Forkward-Sensing’ allows the trucks to interface with a satellite racking system and perform pick and put-away tasks with pallets of butter and cheese at heights of over 10 metres. A fleet of unmanned vehicles is capable of handling 2,000 pallet movements per day across 400 SKUs in the cool-store distribution centre, where temperatures fluctuate between 4°C and -10°C.

“Warehouses are becoming increasingly automated and forklifts are no exception,” said Mark Templeton, CEO, INRO. “So far our customers have had to choose between retaining manually operated forklifts or implementing Automated Guide Vehicles (AGVs) which lack flexibility. The technologies we have developed create a third option – a fully automated forklift that can be driven when necessary. This has created the opportunity for forklift OEMs to make forked AGVs redundant.”

INRO has pioneered a new method of navigating, dubbed Environment-Based Navigation (EBN), that utilises safety lasers to orientate off existing features of the warehouse such as racks, walls, and stored product. This removes the need for spinning lasers and reflectors which add cost, time, and complexity to traditional AGV projects.

Dynamic path planning software directs the vehicles via the optimal route based on the next required task and ensures the forklifts respond in real-time to changes within the environment. The system also features a complete 360? laser curtain, for increased safety in the presence of pedestrians and manned forklifts. While the patented system can be adapted for any standard forklift model, the company is focused on reach and counterbalance trucks which tend to perform more difficult tasks than the standard forklifts automated to-date.

This latest project follows the success of an automated counterbalance forklift system, which has been operational at a separate Fonterra site since 2008. There, two Linde H50 LPG forklifts manage over 300 tonnes of milk powder a day across three production lines, delivering significant labour savings and reducing fuel usage by 29 percent compared to manually-operated trucks performing the same tasks. Reduced wear and tear on vehicles is an additional benefit: tyres on automated forklifts need replacing only every second year, compared to annually on manually operated vehicles.

“The successful testing of the automated reach truck has demonstrated the potential for significant productivity improvements within a cold store warehouse. By choosing to automate standard lift trucks we get the benefit of a reliable, well-supported vehicle from a scale manufacturer, with the option of manned operation if we want it,” said Greg Pope, Manager Supply Chain Infrastructure Standards, Fonterra.

INRO is also in the process of delivering its first automated forklifts to a major third-party logistics company in Melbourne, Australia.

“Global interest and positive industry reception for our patented technology and solution have driven INRO growth over the last few years,” added Mark. “To our knowledge there is no other system as advanced as INRO’s for automating reach trucks and counterbalances operating in a truly commercial environment. As a result, INRO has attracted the attention of leading forklift manufacturers and has entered into discussions with a view to forming an exclusive partnership.”

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