Lift Truck Fleet Management Advances Central to Warehouse Innovation

Meagan Douglas
Wed, Jun 28, 2017
Integrating lift truck fleet data with a warehouse management system can prove valuable in diverse ways.
Integrating lift truck fleet data with a warehouse management system can prove valuable in diverse ways.

The warehouse industry is changing at a breakneck pace as digital technologies give businesses a chance to identify new opportunities for efficiency. This is particularly evident when it comes to lift truck fleet management.

Most warehouses maintain a fleet of lift trucks that are used consistently and on an ongoing basis in day-to-day operations. Modern Materials Handling explained improving fleet management across the lift truck armada represents low-hanging fruit for efficiency gains. These trucks are used, in most cases, for anywhere from 8-24 hours each day. Because of this, small improvements in travel routes, usage patterns, maintenance and similar areas can add up to create major efficiency gains within the warehouse.

The idea of using fleet management to improve warehouse operations has been around for a few years now, and it is time to move beyond the hype and begin solving real problems.

Going Beyond Entry-Level Promises
When a new technology emerges in a market, it often comes with big-picture promises that highlight far-reaching implications. These aren't necessarily meant to mislead or grab attention, but instead help organizations understand the full scope of potential achievements with a new technology. MMH explained that the initial hype surrounding fleet management promised real-time data integration and Internet of Things use to fuel major operational benefits. These potential capabilities are still real. Cost cuts and safety gains are also part of this landscape. However, businesses have begun to move past the initial phase where they get excited about large-scale gains and become realistic with how they take advantage of fleet management technology.

The issue here is these major promises surrounding fleet management center around what a company can do when it takes advantage of a fleet management platform alongside a warehouse management ecosystem. Many companies don't need all of these functions and will simply pick and choose what makes sense for their needs. Essentially, businesses look past the hype and evaluate what the technology can do for them. Industry expert Greg Simmons told MMH what this evolution looks like.

"OEMs and third parties that provide fleet management have all rushed to be able to offer everything," Simmons told MMH. "As we get a couple years into it and customers have tried some things, they've taken a half step back to return to the fundamentals. One size does not fit all, so we see a trend to apply small pieces of the fleet management solution set to one area that helps move the needle for one customer. That's what matters most."

The MMMH report went on to point out a few specific areas where fleet management can pay dividends in the warehouse. These included:

  • Using telematics to get a clearer idea of how and where lift trucks were being used at any given time.
  • Tracking maintenance activities with greater transparency.
  • Understanding operator activities in a more detailed, nuanced way than would have been possible in the past.

Industry expert Jewell Brown told MMH organizations hoping to achieve these benefits must remember communication and collaboration are critical in finding success with fleet management. OEMs, service providers, customers and operators must learn to work together to adequately prepare for and execute a fleet management strategy. Without this cohesion, there is some risk the plan will simply lose momentum and stop delivering value over time.

All told, fleet management systems have the potential to create visibility into how lift trucks move through a warehouse and make it easier to coordinate activities relative to those workflows. These benefits may seem a bit mundane - though undeniably valuable - but they lay the foundation for near-future technologies emerging on the warehouse scene.

Laying the Groundwork for Robotics
Robots have already shown their potential in a variety of sectors, and advanced sensors and data integration systems within robotics solutions allow for a higher degree of safety when robots work in close proximity to humans. Fleet management solutions that offer complete visibility into movement within the warehouse can also be used to track drones and other robots, furthering transparency and ensuring robots move strategically within a facility. In particular, feeding telematics data to robots can allow them to adjust their routes in real time, giving priority to human operators on lift trucks and establishing safe operations in the warehouse.

This may sound a bit like distant-future projection, but a Forbes contributor article explained robots may be on the horizon already. The report's author, Steve Banker, told a personal anecdote showing just how fast robotics innovation is happening. In 2009, Banker had written a research report on robotics in the warehouse. In that analysis, he projected widespread robot usage by the year 2025, making the assumption that the conservative nature of the warehouse sector would slow innovation. Now, Amazon has more than 30,000 robots in use, and Banker believes it is only a matter of time before the technology becomes more mainstream.

Safety and efficiency represent major challenges for increased robotics use in the warehouse. Organizations that want to employ drones must make sure they travel in such a way that humans won't be at risk for accidents. Furthermore, robots need to find their way around a warehouse without getting lost or requiring human intervention. 

Beyond allowing for specific problem solving within an organization, investing in fleet management now sets the data transparency foundation needed for robotics systems. Robots will depend on real-time data to make decisions. If a lift truck carrying a hazardous material moves through an aisle, you may want to instruct drones to fly especially high to avoid a collision or stay away from the aisle completely. Integrating telematics data from fleet management systems across the warehouse management software platform can make this type of communication possible. Ultimately, this is just one example of how robots depend on data. Warehouse operators will eventually move past this initial hype and find specific solutions for their problems. As they do so, the data visibility offered within a WMS ecosystem provides a basis for data-based decision-making.

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