Smart lift trucks become roving brain of the warehouse

Across chain retail enterprises, information technology is no longer limited to the store and home office, but is making deep inroads into the supply chain, notably with the humble lift truck.

The smart lift trucks—also referred to as forklifts—are using telematics to transmit and receive data as they rove the warehouse aisles. As a result, these vehicles have become the "brain" of the distribution center operation, DC Velocity reported. They are functioning as mobile data hubs, much as the point-of-sale system is the data hub of a physical store, and as a component of Internet of Things implementations.

Crown FC 4500 lift truck, image courtesy of Crown Equipment

Fleet managers are starting to see that telematics can introduce dramatic new efficiencies to their operations. "The lift truck is a very interesting asset because it goes everywhere in the warehouse and touches so many things," said Maria Schwieterman, senior marketing product manager, Crown Equipment.

Telematics systems can, as a result, potentially bring improvements to all of those areas. With so many new advances and applications in development, it's worth thinking about the potential benefits this technology could bring to fleet operations of all sizes in the short term.

The day may arrive when forklifts and POS are connected for faster store inventory replenishment. For now, the communication is mostly limited to a warehouse system that handles information about lift trucks such as utilization, impacts, maintenance and repair, and operator productivity, not to mention order picking and putting away.

Telematics systems usually integrate with or include management software, using a management dashboard to view current and historical data, while generating reports about performance, utilization, safety, costs and productivity. Alerts can be sent out via text, email or the dashboard. These features enable fleet managers to track developing trends and address problems proactively rather than after the fact.

The new systems are now using cellular networks and devices to transmit data, thus making telematics available to many fleets that couldn't take advantage of it before, said Dick Sorenson, product director at TotalTrax, which provides tracking services. Standard wireless systems may require users to obtain approval to use the existing Wi-Fi network for data transfer to a server, but these requests are often turned down. As a result, they need to install additional communications infrastructure and get their IT departments involved in the implementation. A cellular-based system makes this unnecessary, with the benefits from a quick and inexpensive installation, he said.

Toyota Industrial Equipment has also introduced a cellular-based telematics product this year. The cellular version "fills a hole in wireless systems," said Jewell Brown, national manager of fleet management for Toyota Material Handling, USA.

The advent of cloud-based and other hosted systems has made it possible to collect and compare data from multiple sites using a single portal. "Applications used to be site-based; users were only able to see trucks within that facility," Brown said. Using hosted applications, customers can look at thousands of pieces of equipment across the country, analyze trends on a corporate level, or compare specific sites or regions.

At first, wireless vehicle management systems could only feed data about factors like impact and maintenance to fleet management software. Next came the ability to integrate with a warehouse management system.

Telematics systems can now reach beyond the WMS to work with software like labor management systems (LMS). By linking data from a wireless vehicle system and an LMS through a single data portal, users can gain visibility into material flow and labor utilization, said John Rosenberger, manager of iWarehouse Gateway and global telematics for The Raymond Corp.

The future of telematics for lift trucks, according to experts, includes battery data integrated with truck and operator information; factory-installed systems on more vehicles; dynamic routing and resource allocation; a greater role in inventory tracking; and the facilitation of predictive maintenance.

For more:
-See this DC Velocity article

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