Even forklifts are going digital

The supply chain digitalization trend is spreading further into the warehouse. During the World of Material Handling event, forklift manufacturer Linde presented various digital applications aimed at improving the efficiency and convenience of working with forklifts and other warehouse trucks. There were even a couple of mentions of the word ‘blockchain’. One thing is clear: the digitalization of the warehouse has only just begun.

By Marcel te Lindert

A forklift did not produce any data at all thirty years ago, but times have changed considerably since then. Today, there is an abundance of data about the deployment, maintenance, fuel consumption and usage of forklifts, often through the truck manufacturers’ fleet management systems. “We need new technologies to gather, store, process and analyse all this data,” says Roger Campbell who is responsible for the intralogistics service at Linde.

In this context, Linde is currently investigating the potential of technologies such as blockchain. “Blockchain enables you to generate data locally and share it globally without it being possible to manipulate it,” states Campbell, who sees opportunities for using blockchain technology for storing the service history of trucks. “Imagine, for example, that I want to buy a second-hand car. Currently, I have to trust that the salesperson is being honest about the car’s service history. But that’s no longer necessary if that history is stored in a blockchain, because then everyone can see what maintenance has been done when.”

Impossible to manipulate

The blockchain that Campbell has in mind will visualize a forklift’s entire life cycle. New blocks of data about the deployment and maintenance of the truck will be continuously added to the blockchain. Customers can use the data to optimize their processes, and Linde can play a role in terms of validating the data. Campbell: “Each new block of data is encrypted with information from the previous block. If the data is altered that part will no longer match the rest of the blockchain, making manipulation impossible. This assures companies that the data stored about a forklift’s life so far cannot be altered by the previous owner, even if they are IT-savvy.”

Campbell is a firm believer that blockchain technology will eventually make its way into core activities in the warehouse, such as storage and order picking. Linde has purposefully chosen to focus on the service history of forklifts first of all as a way of gaining experience with the technology. “A forklift is a distinct object that is easily identifiable, and we can store data about its deployment and usage unambiguously. That makes forklifts ideal for a blockchain pilot project. It’s more difficult to do that for a conveyor,” says Campbell. “But first of all, we need to decide whether we actually need a decentralized infrastructure such as blockchain in this case. A centralized database might be enough.”

Uber for forklifts

Linde’s Truck Call app is one example of an existing digital solution. The app enables users to formulate unplanned tasks and assign them to forklifts. Imagine a scenario in which a delivery truck arrives much later than expected and needs to be unloaded urgently. How can a forklift be arranged quickly? The app works on a similar basis to Uber, explains Marietta Landsmann, Senior Manager of Digital Products at Linde. “Just like a request for a taxi is sent to all taxi drivers, who can choose to accept or reject the request.”

This means that users no need to search the whole warehouse looking for a forklift. Likewise, forklift drivers no longer have to drive to the office in order to report incidents such as damaged goods. They can simply take a photo with their smartphone and inform their supervisor using the Truck Call app. “Handling tasks digitally enables companies to make much more efficient use of their forklift fleet. This eliminates the need to drive around empty just because the forklift driver needs to hand in a delivery note,” comments Landsmann, who has developed other apps too, such as an app containing a compulsory checklist that has to be completed every morning to assess the state of the truck, and a service app that shows when the maintenance technician is scheduled and when spare parts are due to arrive.

Digital forklift

The forklift itself is increasingly being fitted with sensors forming a kind of virtual shield around the truck to issue an automatic alert if pedestrians wearing a tag come too close. Such tags can be stitched into safety jackets also featuring flashing LED lights (see image) that are activated in potentially hazardous situations, such as where forklift lanes intersect with pedestrian walkways. The sensors on the truck can also be used to automatically reduce the maximum speed in hazardous locations.

Sensors are essential in another important trend: self-driving forklifts, for which Linde utilizes the navigation technology from the French robot specialist Balyo. This enables Linde’s trucks to find their own way without needing in-built infrastructure such as reflectors or induction lines. The sensors in this solution are rapidly being improved. In addition to the 2D sensors with a 270º field of view, 3D sensors with a 360º field of view are already in use. In fact, Linde is currently working with Balyo to develop a sensor with a 360º field of view with sixteen layers, which will generate even more reference points for even greater accuracy.