Mar 31, 2022 - Technology

Self-driving forklifts aim to make factories safer

OTTO Motors' autonomous forklift in a factory setting

OTTO Motors' autonomous forklift. Photo courtesy of OTTO

A self-driving forklift may be the next wave of warehouse and factory innovations, saving companies on labor and, ideally, making industrial settings safer for everyone.

Why it matters: Demand for logistics help is soaring, but forklift operators and other skilled workers are in short supply. Robotic vehicles are one way that manufacturers and logistics companies can address labor shortages while running their operations more safely and efficiently.

  • Notably: While autonomous vehicles aren't yet ready for deployment on U.S. roadways, they're already being employed in factories and other industrial settings.

Driving the news: OTTO Motors, whose autonomous mobile robots are widely used in automotive plants, says its new self-driving forklift can pick up and carry up to 2,640 pounds and navigate crowded factory floors using many of the same sensors and software being developed for self-driving cars.

  • The forklift's software makes real-time decisions about where it's going and what it's picking up, and can steer around people and other obstacles.
  • It can also help avoid accidents linked to poorly trained forklift operators who speed, make sharp turns or drive with elevated loads, causing tipovers.
    • Forklifts were the source of 78 work-related deaths and 7,290 nonfatal injuries resulting in days away from work in 2020, according to the National Safety Council.
    • 70% of all industrial accidents are caused by operator error, per the NSC.

Where it stands: Automated guided vehicles (AGVs) are fairly common in today's industrial settings, but they're not as useful or cost-effective as autonomous mobile robots (AMRs) like the OTTO Lifter.

  • AGVs carry materials on a fixed route and are guided by wires, magnetic strips or sensors embedded in the floor, which can be expensive to install and update.
  • AMRs are now being put to work in many factories because they're better at navigating dynamic environments.
  • Leading players, besides OTTO, include MiR, Fetch, Omron, Balyo, Seegrid and Geek+.

Driverless forklifts may be "poised for a breakthrough," as factories look to supplement — or replace — human forklift operators, reports DC Velocity, a supply chain publication.

  • By 2025, more than 2.5% of all industrial trucks will be automated forklifts, predicts Ash Sharma, a London-based analyst with Interact Analysis.
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