Navigant Research Blog

Materials Handling Sector Trends Upward with IoT and Automation

— May 4, 2017

As digitization and automation become mainstream, materials handling vehicles (MHVs) are evolving from passive tools to intelligent, connected pieces of the supply chain. Navigant Research believes that advanced technology options for MHVs are nascent in the materials handling industry and offer significant improvements over traditional options. As the needs of these users grow more complex, it will be important that equipment evolves as seamlessly and efficiently as possible.

The application of Internet of Things (IoT) technology is not limited to automation; it also increasingly enables data integration and using materials handling equipment as data sources. Businesses are turning to data-driven intelligence to guide decisions that improve operational efficiency and protect the bottom line. For MHVs, connected fleets and data-driven operations produce a wealth of small floor-level insights that are transformed into actionable business intelligence. Several companies recognize this and are making steps to ensure predictive analytics play a role in day-to-day operations.

IoT’s Role in Equipment Maintenance

Besides operational efficiency, IoT technology is playing an increasing role in equipment maintenance. Autonomously monitoring the condition of MHV components and generating trouble codes for service technicians can be used to detect failures and/or equipment wear before they affect the vehicle’s performance. For example, forklift manufacturer Linde is working on automating the procedure of troubleshooting fleet issues, ordering spare vehicle parts, and scheduling service engineers while simultaneously informing the customer about the order status. In turn, this makes it easier to streamline orders, identify bottlenecks, and provides transparency to customers.

Advanced Automation – Playing a Role in the Integration of Emerging Electric Powertrain Options

Communication-enabled battery data and chargers allow warehouses to:

  • Reduce or eliminate the battery room footprint by eliminating the need for bulky charging infrastructure
  • Improve forklift uptime by way of opportunity charging
  • Decrease the number of batteries and chargers onsite because of improved battery runtime

Navigant Research’s Advanced Electric Forklift Technologies in North America report states that advanced electric technologies for forklifts may have higher upfront prices. However, they can reduce operating costs with longer runtime and reduced fueling over the lifespan of the fleet.

Battery Advancements

Several battery manufacturers see increased interest in traction technologies nascent to the industry. One of the first companies to do so, Navitas Systems, recently announced it will deploy the Starlifter battery at a Defense Logistics Agency (DLA) in Pennsylvania. Navitas’ program objective is to evaluate the utility, feasibility, maintainability, and cost-effectiveness of replacing lead-acid batteries with fast-charging lithium ion (Li-ion) deep-cycle forklift batteries in DLA Distribution warehouses. The program also hopes to decrease total forklift battery costs of ownership and increase forklift operational readiness and productivity. Companies like Linde and Electrovaya also have recently announced new Li-ion options for forklift batteries as a result of the demands of current warehouse and logistics environments. Much different than the industry 20 years ago, modern warehouses have increased demand for operational efficiency, around-the-clock operations, and more advanced vehicles capable of working in cold storage climates.

Fleet managers look to operational data to improve efficiency and competitiveness. Real-time floor-level alerts are increasingly important so operators can address issues immediately. Customers also expect greater visibility into their lift truck fleet, support equipment, and ongoing asset health. In the future, vehicles will communicate with each other, decision-making will be at the user level, and batteries and charging infrastructure will combine with operator and truck data to inform fleet management across both forklift and powertrain platforms.


The Growth of Automation and Market Competition

— November 14, 2016

Ethernet CablesHumans have amazing analytical capabilities; it has taken decades and some of the most powerful computers ever produced to finally challenge and beat top-level chess players due to the complexities of the game. Now, however, we are seeing autonomous cars driving themselves on our roads, and more and more automation is creeping into basic the technologies that we use every day.

The same is true for commercial buildings and other related energy equipment and technologies.  Automation is taking over tasks and settings that were either normally left alone or adjusted based on a human’s intervention or intuition. The difference between a human and a machine with built-in intelligence lies in focus and attention span. Computers don’t lose focus, nor do they get bored, tired, or stressed; humans do. That’s why it makes sense to let computers check and recheck a setting or make an adjustment to a piece of equipment a couple of hundred times per second, 24 hours a day. Humans simply cannot do this kind of work.

So why is automation so complex, and why is it taking so long to implement into something that a computer can do? First off, a human has to understand any automated tasks and translate them into a language a computer can understand. But that’s not all; new sensors need to be designed and built, software has to be written, and computers require more power to run these automated processes.

An Evolutionary Step

Automation is an evolutionary step to a market dynamic that started years ago with the advent of big data. While many touted the benefits of how much data they were collecting, as it turns out, data can be meaningless, useless, and even costly. A facilities manager can’t do much with a terabyte of building system data collected every day. A computer, however, is a different story.

After years of collecting data, many industries are now starting to understand how it can be used to make significant differences in the efficiency and optimization of equipment operations. They are also starting to take a more holistic view of how disparate pieces of equipment actually work together as an ecosystem of technology to serve a common purpose.

There is still a long way to go. Companies that have started the process of assessing their capabilities in this area will have a significant market advantage over those that have not, and the ones that have an automated offering are already industry leaders. In the near future, it may be the case that a company that does not have some form of automation or intelligence in its commercial building efficiency product or service will have little chance to compete.


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