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How Robotic Reach Trucks Factor Into Warehouse Operations


It may seem crass, but it's not inaccurate to say "good luck" finding a reach fork truck operator in the current labor market. These vehicles are central to warehouse operations as they are built to move materials around distribution centers, warehouses and even large retail stores. They're smaller than forklifts and in demand thanks to the overall growth of warehouses in an e-commerce world. This means operators are also in demand — and in short supply — forcing warehouse operators and managers to weigh all options. This includes robotic reach trucks.

Reach Trucks in Warehouses

When warehouse and distribution square footage is at a premium, making aisles taller and narrower creates more space. When warehouses become cramped, going up makes sense, however, it can make navigation and material handling quite difficult. Reach fork trucks can be assets to any warehouse fleet — allowing operators to easily navigate in and out of narrow aisles and reach significant heights, all while maintaining lifting capacity.

Training Operators

Reach truck training is mandatory if forklift operators are required to use these trucks on a daily basis. OSHA stipulates that reach truck operators must receive proper training and stay up to date on reach truck safety guidelines.

There is no doubt that reach truck operator training allows forklift operators to build skills and limit risk across job sites. The training highlights reach truck safety topics and encourages workers to share their on-the-job safety concerns while the training helps reach truck operators comply with OSHA requirements.

Providing reach truck operator certification training shows workers that a company prioritizes health and safety. The training gives reach truck operators insights into how to safely work at heights, travel on inclines, and other workplace safety best practices. As a result, the training can help reach truck operators simultaneously improve workplace safety and maximize their productivity.

One problem: the current demand for these drivers is significantly greater than available personnel. The efficacy of a reach truck in narrow aisles is moot if there are no drivers. There is one exception: robotic reach trucks that do not require a human driver.

Operator Employment

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) projects that the employment of material moving machine operators, including forklift drivers, will grow by 2% between 2019 to 2029. This employment change may result in the addition of approximately 19,000 new roles annually. Most of the demand for new forklift drivers comes from the warehousing field, and this demand will continue to rise as more consumers choose to shop online and purchase products that require shipment. This was true before Covid-19 and is now exponentially greater as more consumers want to order in the morning and receive the product the same afternoon.

According to Zippia, there are over 401,693 forklift drivers currently employed in the United States. Only 10.8% of all forklift drivers are women and the average driver is 42 years old. The greatest concentration of drivers is located in Memphis and Houston. They are most in demand in Denver.

Robotic Reach Trucks Find a Place

Self-driving reach fork trucks offer another option now that trained fork truck drivers are hard to find. The new autonomous reach trucks embed unique infrastructure-free navigation technology. The current generation of autonomous reach trucks can interface with machines, conveyors, warehouse management systems (WMS) and ERP (enterprise resource planning) software for a full integration within existing operations. These robots drive quality improvements, and they independently perform pick & drop from conveyors, gravity racks, and elevated mezzanines and mobile racks.

Robots versus Humans

The traditional ROI calculation is less relevant at the moment because the two pressing questions to answer include: Is there a robotic solution available now? If not, the ROI clock cannot start. Vendors are far behind in deliveries of both traditional fork trucks and AGVs.

The second question is how many trucks are missing an operator currently. Downtime from unused vehicles lacking a driver changes the calculation about AGV ROI. The comparison between traditional fork trucks and AGVs is moot. Throwing labor at the problem isn't always possible in the current labor shortage.

Narrow aisles (roughly 72 inches) allow companies to leverage the existing footprint of a plant, warehouse or distribution center. All AGVs have a software interface to WMS or warehouse control systems (WCS). Some are more or less elegant than the next, however, the data collected informs warehouse managers what to move and when to move it. Some of the most sophisticated technologies promising IoT and/or machine learning are not well received in the distribution center environment, which is measured by product turns and picking accuracy. This may change over the next 24 months, but for now, the chief goal is to compensate for the lack of fork truck drivers. Aside from adjusting delivery times and gaining more hours from the existing labor force, managers can look to robotics to help stem the effects of a labor shortage.

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