Are AI forklifts the future?

Since Doosan announced it would soon be integrating A.I. into its forklifts, we thought we’d look at the possible implications of the A.I. revolution on forklifts and warehouses across the world.

Where are we now?

A.I research is currently booming and there are huge technological advances happening across the world in the field of robotics and A.I software development. The world as imagined by writers such as Arthur C Clarke and Isaac Asimov is on the cusp of becoming a reality and those people who don’t adapt will almost certainly fall behind.

The rise of AGV (Automated Guided Vehicles) has been strong but further developments in A.I will bring about even more changes. The AGV’s can be used to assist with tasks like palletising, packing and transporting goods. Human labour in warehouses may find itself being supplemented by well-meaning robots.

What will happen next?

Robotics specialists are working on a four-year project called ILIAD (Intra-Logistics with Integrated Automatic Deployment) that will consolidate all the current A.I advances into one targeted system. A system that will be relatively cheap, simple to use and won’t require a huge outlay for companies to invest in.

These robots will be programmed to be self-optimising, they can collect and refine data over time and share information across an entire fleet. Effectively this means that the longer the A.I spends working in a warehouse, the more it can learn and the more efficient it becomes. When there’s no need for sleep, toilet breaks or any chance of employees complaining about working conditions you begin to see the broad appeal for company directors. Your human workforce may be able to share information with each other but can they exchange useful information 10 times a second all day every day?

Robots will be equipped with advanced vision programmes and will be able to track and predict human behaviour. Over time they will be able to work out the most efficient way of undertaking a particular task and make choices about which orders to prioritise. By integrating a small workforce of AGV’s into warehouses to work with human staff, the addition of robotic assistants who learn quickly on the job will see profit margins rising and wasted time minimised. Dynamic and shifting models of how humans move around the warehouse will be analysed in real time with the knock-on effect of seeing human efficiency rising steadily.


Will they be safe?

In the early stages, safety is paramount and much of the software is similar to the programmes being used in self-driving cars. Newer AVG’s will be equipped with 360-degree vision, be able to recognise and interact with their environment and to take evasive action if the threat of a collision occurs. They will also be clever enough to predict how and when humans are going to move and avoid putting themselves and others in danger.

AI systems are likely to integrate with electronic and green technologies meaning that the forklifts of tomorrow are likely to be cleaner, greener and able to record and track their emissions. Early adoption has come from the fresh food sector which has challenging requirements: high levels of traceability, short shelf life and the need for rapid response to a changing market. When fresh food is involved, the cleaner and greener the tools of the trade tend to be.

As A.I continues to evolve it may be able to predict with increasing accuracy the demands of the market and take appropriate steps to ensure product delivery in advance. Looks like sunshine for the next two days? Sales of beer, meat, and instant BBQ’s are potentially going to go through the roof. Don’t panic though, there’s no need to rush this was all predicted last week by the A.I and its integrated weather software, so the products have already been distributed well in advance.

One thing to bear in mind though is that A.I is only as good as the data that it is given. There are bound to be hiccoughs and the systems will work best when it fully understands an industry’s Key Performance Indicators (KPI). We’re definitely much closer to the futuristic warehouse, but there’s still some way to go. You don’t have to be a computing expert to begin seeing the uses for A.I in your company, but you will have to ensure that you have high-quality data, know how to drive improvements in your business model and definitely have some data experts on the payroll.


What does the future look like?

Whilst it’s tempting to look at the rise of A.I as a panacea for all warehouse woes or as a dystopian nightmare where you become rapidly outsourced to a willing army of robot slaves, the reality will almost certainly lay somewhere between these two conflicting stories.

When working well A.I will be a warehouse manager’s best tool for creating efficient and dynamic change. The future is looking bright.