Feb 13, 2024 - News

First look: Arkansas logistics company unveils AI forklifts

Illustration of a forklift carrying a game controller.

Illustration: Lindsey Bailey/Axios

Several youngish men sit in a room at an ArcBest facility in Fort Smith staring at computer screens, twisting steering wheels and thumbing buttons.

  • What looks like a gamer's paradise is really where humans interact with a fleet of semiautonomous forklifts, moving tons of payload in a warehouse.

Driving the news: The freight-and-logistics company today is unveiling this new technology that was developed in a live-action warehouse lab near its corporate headquarters.

State of play: U.S. freight activity is expected to grow 50% by 2050, and the transportation/warehousing sector is projected to be the fourth-fastest-growing industry through 2032, creating demand for workers.

Why it matters: ArcBest's combination of automated work and human intervention is the best of both worlds. It allows drivers to apply their skills, skipping the monotony of long hauls and is generally safer for those working alongside the "bots."

  • ArcBest's system has the potential to help companies move cargo faster — as much as 80% — all while reducing damage and supplementing the labor pool.

Context: ArcBest last year rolled out a system it calls Vaux. It allows a shipper to place cargo on a metal platform with vertical posts and cross-beams, easily adjustable to the needs of a load.

  • The resulting skeleton can be wheeled onto — and off of — a standard shipping trailer in minutes (generally 53 feet long and 8.5 feet wide). Think of it as a single pallet for an entire load.
  • The Vaux hardware is enhanced by software that shows workers the most efficient way to assemble freight onto the platform.

The latest: ArcBest customers using Vaux now have an option to use a semi-autonomous fleet of forklifts to load and unload each mobile platform, the company revealed Tuesday.

  • On a recent Axios tour of ArcBest's 235,000-square-foot testing facility, Craig Wahlmeier, VP of technology R&D, stepped toward a moving, driverless forklift. The machine stopped.
  • One of the "gamers" was notified that something kept the lift from completing its route. He could opt to take over and navigate the machine around the obstacle or wait for the obstacle to move, which Wahlmeier did.

Of note: Most of the operators are experienced forklift drivers, so when it's time to drop each load into its destined location, they take over and finesse it into place. Operators can "manage" several forklifts at once.

  • A control room in Fort Smith could manage activity in a Seattle warehouse, or someone could even work from home.

What they're saying: "We've had customers talk to us about existing footprints that they have … not being large enough," ArcBest CEO Judy McReynolds told Axios.

  • But Vaux "enables their throughput to really accelerate. So they're able to do … more work or move more materials … with the same warehouse footprint."

What's next: ArcBest is working to perfect an adapted Vaux platform for hauling cars to meet automakers' needs and will eventually plans to tackle refrigerated loads.

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