Lift truck data: The next frontier
New developments in wireless communication and data collection will soon allow industrial fleets to go where no forklift has gone before.
By Toby Gooley
Two years ago, DC Velocity published an article titled "Could a lift truck become the 'brain' of your DC operation?" In it, Crown Equipment Corp.'s Jim Gaskell, who oversees the forklift maker's fleet optimization products, posited that lift trucks would one day function as mobile data hubs, connecting to systems and devices beyond warehouse management systems (WMS). It could soon be possible, he said, to use the resulting data to better manage the warehouse as a whole.
That day has arrived.
Lift truck telematics—the transmission of data to and from industrial trucks—and the technologies used for collecting, sharing, and analyzing lift truck-related data have made great strides since that article was published. These developments have enabled the once-humble forklift to become a full-fledged member of the Internet of Things (IoT), which the McKinsey Global Institute defines as devices that can "monitor their environment, report their status, receive instructions, and even take action based on the information they receive."
With the right technology on board, lift trucks can do all that and more, opening the way for them to function as the data hubs envisioned several years ago. But it doesn't end there. Engineers and software developers are thinking up additional ways to apply lift truck telematics and data technologies. If their ideas become reality, then the forklift of the future could be more akin to something from "Star Trek" or "The Jetsons" than to the basic material handling tool of the past.
SO WHAT'S NEW?
Communication terminals that integrate with a truck's on-board electronics to collect and wirelessly send and receive data have been available for some time now from both lift truck makers and independent providers. These systems handle information about almost any lift truck "experience" you can think of: impacts, utilization, maintenance and repair, vehicle inspections, and operator productivity, among others. Depending on the product, they may track a lift truck's location or remotely control its activities, by regulating speed or preventing unauthorized users from starting the engine, for example.
Fleet managers must be able to analyze and act on all that data, of course. For that reason, telematics systems typically include or integrate with fleet management software. Via a management dashboard, users can view current and historical data and generate reports about performance, utilization, safety, costs, and productivity for an entire fleet or for individual trucks and operators. The systems also send out alerts via text, e-mail, or the dashboard. All these features allow fleet managers to see trends as they develop and be proactive rather than simply address problems after the fact.
Recent developments have made lift truck telematics and associated technologies even more advantageous. For example, some systems now use cellular networks and devices to transmit data. That makes telematics available to many fleets that couldn't take advantage of it before, says Dick Sorenson, product director at TotalTrax Inc., a provider of automated vehicle, driver, and inventory tracking products that recently launched a version featuring cellular technology and services supplied by Wyless. With standard wireless systems, users must get approval to use their existing Wi-Fi network for data transfer to a server—and it's not uncommon for such a request to be turned down, Sorenson says. Furthermore, they often must install additional communications infrastructure and get their IT departments involved in the implementation. With a cellular-based system, he says, none of that is necessary, making installation much faster and cheaper.
Toyota Industrial Equipment also introduced a cellular-based telematics product earlier this year. The company teamed up with Sprint to offer T-Matics Mobile, a lower-priced "plug and play" version of its T-Matics vehicle management system. (Toyota also offers T-Matics Command, a comprehensive, customizable system that uses I.D. Systems' asset tracking technology.) The cellular version "fills a hole in wireless systems," says Jewell Brown, national manager of fleet management for Toyota Material Handling, U.S.A., Inc. For one thing, it's affordable for smaller fleets that can't justify the cost of fixed wireless systems, she says. For another, because cellular devices and networks are movable, inexpensive, and simple to install, they make vehicle management solutions economically feasible for rentals, short-term leases, and other equipment that moves around among facilities.
The advent of cloud-based and other hosted systems has made it possible for fleet managers 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 says. With hosted applications like T-Matics, she says, customers can look at thousands of pieces of equipment across the country, analyzing trends on a corporate level or comparing specific sites or regions.
Telematics solutions are becoming increasingly flexible. For example, TotalTrax recently released its SX/VX telematics platform, which features an open architecture that allows easy integration of its own or third-party applications. Using a single hardware device, customers can choose only the features they need and purchase them via downloadable software packages. Users can also choose which individual functions to employ across different sites and vehicles, and decide whether to host the platform software locally or centrally, or have TotalTrax host it. In addition, the user interface can be displayed on any browser-enabled device, including existing vehicle-mounted terminals, tablets, or smartphones, the company says.
Originally, wireless vehicle management systems only fed data about things like impacts and maintenance into fleet management software. The next advance was to integrate with a WMS. In Jungheinrich's Warehouse Navigation System for very narrow-aisle trucks, for example, when instructions come in from the WMS, the wireless navigation system plots the most efficient path to the picking or putaway location; the truck completes the activity and sends a confirmation to the WMS.
Now, telematics systems are reaching beyond the WMS to work with other software, such as labor management systems (LMS). By integrating data from a wireless vehicle system and an LMS through a single data portal, users gain visibility into both material flow and labor utilization, says John Rosenberger, manager of iWarehouse Gateway and global telematics for The Raymond Corp., developer of the iWarehouse suite of fleet management products. This allows fleet managers to identify inefficiencies and unnecessary costs associated with the interaction of people, processes, and equipment. And because this combination produces extremely accurate task-time measurements through continuous monitoring, it also has the potential to revolutionize labor standards. Now, Rosenberger says, "if the job changes—say, to a different slot and rack—we can measure that automatically and can adjust the labor standard accordingly."
WHERE TO NEXT?
Lift truck telematics providers have added many new products and applications over the past two to three years. The pace of development is likely to accelerate, according to the experts consulted for this article. Here are some predictions for where this technology is headed in the near future:
Battery data will be integrated with truck and operator information. Crown Equipment Corp. will soon release an on-board battery monitor that will wirelessly feed data into its InfoLink fleet management system. Users will gain real-time visibility of a battery's performance while it's in use and for the first time, will be able to view and analyze that information in concert with other lift truck data as well as tie individual operators to battery performance.
More trucks will have factory-installed systems. Previously, these systems were strictly aftermarket add-ons, but that's starting to change. "Because technology is an integral part of the solutions we provide for our customers, we are seeing high demand for new trucks to be equipped with telematics right off the line," says Tim Raper, telematics product and program manager for Toyota Material Handling, U.S.A. He expects to see a jump in orders for trucks with the telematics capability integrated into the vehicle's "canbus," or electronic controller.
Dynamic routing and resource allocation will become feasible. Improvements in wireless vehicle tracking and locating technologies will allow software to monitor traffic flow and patterns, identifying problems like congestion or an accident and rerouting trucks around them, says Rosenberger. He also foresees the ability to dynamically reallocate lift truck capacity based on internal and external data sources, including GPS tracking of over-the-road trucks and dock scheduling software. If, say, a delivery truck will be delayed because of traffic, algorithms will reorganize that day's jobs in the WMS to accommodate the delay and automatically give drivers new instructions, he explains.
Telematics will play a greater role in inventory tracking. There are two types of telematics solutions for lift trucks: one is for equipment and activity monitoring, and the other, referred to as real-time location systems (RTLS), tracks equipment, pallets, and people, says Sorenson. The next logical step, he says, is to integrate data from both types to provide visibility of inventory movements within the warehouse. TotalTrax is working on this via its Skytrax RTLS system, which places unique bar-code location markers in a facility's ceiling and optical imaging devices on top of forklifts. The devices capture multiple images per second and translate them into real-time data about a vehicle's location, direction, and speed. Putting the same optical technology on the mast of a forklift enables the device to automatically read pallet labels and confirm to the driver that the acquired pallet matches the pick order generated by a WMS, Sorenson explains. It can also identify and track pallets through putaway and convey that information to the WMS. A lift-height sensor on the mast identifies the rack level when a pallet is put away, and a pallet detector, also on the mast, creates a "time on/time off" stamp. Together, these technologies identify each pallet's exact location at all times, he says.
Software will become more important than hardware. As more hardware is installed at the factory, the software that manages the data collection and enables the information to be exchanged with other software and systems will become the critical factor in delivering value to users, Sorenson says. A similar factor is at play when it comes to data analysis. Rather than introducing more sensors into a truck, vendors will focus on finding fresh ways to extract and analyze data from the mechanisms already in place, Rosenberger says. For example, the data output from measuring the force of hydraulic fluid could be analyzed to determine when a truck is carrying a load and to estimate its weight.
Telematics will facilitate predictive maintenance. In the future, fleet managers will analyze operator and equipment data together in order to more accurately predict what parts will need to be replaced on a truck and when. For example, one driver may routinely wear out tires faster than another; when the system sees that the first driver has been assigned to a truck that's subject to heavy outdoor usage, it might schedule tire replacements earlier than the average expected replacement time. The key will be basing maintenance plans on data from a specific operating environment and on intelligence about a particular person, says Brown.
Task interleaving will become more effective. Everyone wants to do task interleaving—carrying out one task like pallet putaway and then completing a different one, like order picking, on the way back, without wasted time or effort—but the results from currently available WMS modules are subpar, Sorenson says. Telematics could allow users "to get to true interleaving" that maximizes operator productivity by using vehicle tracking technology to optimize each movement and allocate every resource in the warehouse in the most efficient way, he says.
FROM FUTURISTIC CONCEPT TO NECESSITY
The lift truck manufacturers and independent providers mentioned here are not the only ones that offer lift truck telematics systems. Others, such as Yale Materials Handling, Hyster Co., and Asset Control Group, to name just a few, offer similar products that continue to evolve.
Providers of these systems expect that concerns about the technology's maturity and implementation costs will dissipate as prices drop. It won't be long, they say, before fleet managers stop thinking of telematics as a futuristic concept and come to see it as a necessary part of everyday operations.
But many fleet managers are just beginning to recognize that telematics can introduce game-changing efficiencies to their operations. "The lift truck is a very interesting asset because it goes everywhere in the warehouse and touches so many things," observes Maria Schweiterman, a senior marketing product manager at Crown Equipment Corp. As a result, telematics systems can potentially bring improvements to all of those areas. With so many improvements and new applications currently in development, she says, it's worth thinking about the benefits this technology could potentially soon bring to fleet operations of all sizes.
About the Author
Contributing Editor Toby Gooley is a freelance writer and editor specializing in supply chain, logistics, material handling, and international trade. She previously was Senior Editor at DC VELOCITY and Editor of DCV's sister publication, CSCMP's Supply Chain Quarterly. Prior to joining AGiLE Business Media in 2007, she spent 20 years at Logistics Management magazine as Managing Editor and Senior Editor covering international trade and transportation. Prior to that she was an export traffic manager for 10 years. She holds a B.A. in Asian Studies from Cornell University.
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