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With robots, forklifts will never be the same again

Robotic technology will transform the forklift industry, causing a transfer of value from human driving services towards spending on autonomous industrial material handling, writes DR KHASHA GHAFFARZADEH, Research Director, IDTechEx.

Robotic technology will also transfigure this industry, slowly but surely, enabling the rise of new types of autonomous mobile material handling units that will permeate into all aspects of our daily lives over the coming two decades.

The new IDTechEx Research report Mobile Robots and Drones in Material Handling and Logistics 2017-2037 provides a comprehensive and in-depth analysis of this transformation. Indeed, it provides technology and market assessments for all aspects of mobile robotics material handling and logistics. It shows, quantitatively, how some technologies will rise to transform industries whilst others will face becoming obsolete. Uniquely, this report takes a 20-year view of the future. This is essential because of the time scales on which these changes are likely to operate.

More specifically, this report provides the full picture, including technology assessment, detailed twenty-year market forecasts clearly explaining/justifying the different phases of market evolution, and company overviews/profiles/interviews. It covers AGVs/AGCs, autonomous mobile material handling carts/units and vehicles, mobile picking robots, autonomous light vans and trucks, last mile delivery drones, ground-based last mile delivery droids and so on.

Background

Autonomous cars are the subject of a lot of hype and the media attention. Yet, despite being the largest prize, they will be amongst the last vehicle types to go fully autonomous. This is because their environment is poorly structured, and they are thus hard to autonomize. The current models of ownership and usage also provide a weak motivation for the general public to pay for autonomous driving, constricting adoption to high-end cars until long-term technology learning curves bring prices sufficiently down.

A drastically different picture is found when one looks beyond passenger cars: all manners of commercial vehicles operate in a variety of semi-structured and controlled indoor and outdoor environments. In such cases, the technology barrier to autonomy is lower whilst a pricing system already exists that values the provision of driving services. Warehouses and factories are examples of such environments, and are thus an appealing target for autonomous mobility technology.

Incumbent automated technology to go obsolete

Indeed, automated guided vehicles (AGVs) have been around since 1950s, essentially acting as long-range distributed conveyer systems. This technology itself has matured: sales have diversified beyond just automotive factories and assembly lines, the onus has shifted onto suppliers to spend effort in developing customer specifications, and price pressures are increasingly intense.

The latter is critical in this highly fragmented business landscape where suppliers offer comparable levels of competency. We find that it is likely that companies with partnerships with major forklift players will command a competitive advantage via the removal of margin stacking. This partially explains the recent activities by forklift players to acquire, or partner with, AGV companies.

AGVs, and in recent years AGCs (carts), are enjoying healthy, albeit slow, growth. Yet, the industry is on shaky ground. Indeed, we assess that AGVs will face a slow journey towards technology obsolescence in the next 15 years. The current positive growth rates, we find, give a false sense of long-term security, and companies will increasingly face an adapt-or-die situation.

Indeed, the IDTechEx Research report Mobile Robots and Drones in Material Handling and Logistics 2017-2037 will provide an assessment of why this technology will lose in the long-term. We will also provide a quantitative picture of its modest growth in the near future and its slow decay in the long-term

Rise of independent mobility

The challenge to the incumbent AGV technology comes from the next generation of navigational autonomy technology. Current AGV systems are rigid and require infrastructure modifications, i.e., the placement of references points or lines to guide the vehicles. These systems safely work across all payload ranges. They are however difficult to tweak, require advanced full system planning, and involve a large onsite installation time which represents a major manpower overhead.

Fully autonomous systems will do away with such shortcomings. They offer flexibility in that routes can be changed via a software interface and updated via the cloud, and benefit from short installation time involving the CAD model of the facility and/or the walking around of one robot for ‘training’ it.

Current models all have limited payloads, partially because safety is not yet fully trusted. The robots and software are also still somewhat expensive, limiting applicability to less cost-sensitive sectors. Human workers may also put a resistance to wide-scale adoption, seeing them as more of a threat.

None is however a showstopper. This transition towards infrastructure-free and independent autonomous navigation technology will take place. The payloads will increasingly rise to cover the full spectrum and hardware costs will fall thanks to major investment in other autonomous driving industries. In fact, we assess that very soon costs across the board will fall below the level of AGVs since they save on installation and infrastructure modification costs.

This story can be contextualized as part of a slow change in the navigation technology for AGVs moving from low-cost wire or magnetic tape guidance to laser localization and now to natural feature recognition and SLAM. This technology evolution however increasingly necessitates a transformation in the nature of the companies towards software and algorithm plays. Indeed, it is the importance of software (autonomy algorithms, fleet/inventory management systems, user interfaces) that explains why California has emerged as a hotspot for investment and start-ups in this arena.

Luckily, many of the major changes will arrive in small evolutionary steps, giving the wise incumbents the chance to go with the flow and exploit their customer relationship and application know-how to stay in the warehouse/factory mobility automation game. They will however have to fundamentally alter their engineering skillset.

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Colossal value transfer towards vehicle suppliers?

Independent autonomous navigation enables the mobile material handling vehicle industry (e.g., forklifts, tugs, etc) to generate far more revenue than would have been the case without autonomous mobility. Indeed, vehicle suppliers will increasingly capture the value that currently goes to the wage bill spent on human-provided driving services.

As quantitatively demonstrated in our twenty-year forecasts, this will represent a major sum despite the fact that our projected figures for future autonomous mobility hardware costs suggest a long-term devaluation of driving services in high-wage regions.

Our technology roadmaps also suggest that autonomous forklifts will soon become a major feature of the industry, despite them not even being mentioned in major forklift companies’ investor presentations today. Indeed, our forecast model suggests that nearly 70% of all forklift sold in 2038 will be autonomous.

This transformation will of course not take place overnight. Indeed, the timescales of adoption will be long, explaining why in our study we have chosen to build 20-year models where different phases of growth are clearly marked and underlying assumptions/conditions explained.

In our forecast model for autonomous mobile industrial material handling vehicles, we project that annual sales of autonomous versions will steady rise but remain a tiny share of the global addressable market until around 2023. We will then enter the rapid growth phase soon after, causing a transformation of the industry and dramatically raising adoption levels.

Note that the forklift industry is open to innovation. It embraced electric powertrains in the past, particularly for indoor environments and in Europe. It will also adopt autonomous navigation. In fact, merger and acquisition between forklift and automation (also AGV) companies is already a noteworthy trend.

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Beyond the confines of factories and warehouses

Interestingly, new types of mobile robots are emerging. Here, the rise of navigational autonomy will enable mobile material handling units (robots) to enter new walks of life. This is because mobile robots will become increasingly able and authorized to share spaces with humans, intelligently navigating their way and avoiding objects. They will therefore enter new spaces to ferry items around, diffusing from highly controlled and structured environments towards increasingly less structured ones.

These technologies will share a common technology platform with other autonomous material handling units, although each application will need to be adapted to each environment, and this ability to customize (or initiate) will remain a source of value for start-ups and SME for years to come.

Here, currently, the hardware is often an integral part of the software which is customized to each environment. This prevents commoditization in the short- to medium-term, but will not manage to prevent in the long term. Consequently, such mobile robotic companies will inevitably have to seek new sources of revenue. Therefore, a long-term re-thinking of business models will be required with emphasis shifting from the robot onto data-based or delivery services. Our contacts tell us that this re-thinking too has already begun.

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Mobile is the new branch

Standard Bank has launched an account for mobile devices that gives back 500MB of data a month

Standard Bank has introducd a R4.95p/m bank account called MyMo that customers can open on their mobile devices, loaded with data and airtime offerings and other benefits such as virtual and Gold physical card.

MyMo account holders will also enjoy the convenience of a cheque account through a Visa and Mastercard gold card. Once the account is open, users can choose to either receive R50 in airtime or 500MB of data a month, if their card is swiped more than four times a month. A further megabyte of data is loaded on the account for every R20 spent.

“MyMo is an account for everyone, whether you just landed your first job or have been around the block. With no documentation required it only takes a few minutes to open the account,” says Funeka Montjane, Chief Executive for Personal and Business Banking, South Africa, at Standard Bank Group. “For just R4.95 a month customer will be able to enjoy free swipes and ATM withdrawals at only R6.50 for amounts under R 1 000.

“Mobile is the new branch. This account is about bringing the mobile branch into customers hands, it is about convenience and security while banking.”

She says mobile offers low cost transactional banking which integrates people and businesses into the new connected economy, making mobile the new branch ecosystem that will drive and connect Africa’s growth. Physical connections to the economy are rapidly changing to digital where banks have to move from being financial institutions to service organisations.

“In the past people congregated in communities and eventually cities to maximise the advantages of connectivity. Today a simple hand-held device has the potential to open infinite doors, transforming individuals’ access to opportunities, regardless of where they are, and like never before in history. 

“Historically, a bank account represented access to economic citizenship. Today, having a simple device enabling digital access to a modern banking platform is a passport to global connectivity and vast human development potential.”

The bank says it is using technology, and mobile phones in particular, to deliver low-cost transactional channels accessible to all our customers. The evolution in mobile can be seen in transaction options like cash back at the retail checkout till rather than the ATM, free digital banking rather than using a branch, and the ability to transact using digital wallets, even without a bank account.

“Developing comprehensive connected ecosystems requires a mind-set change from Africa’s banks,” says Montjane. “Banks will evolve away from traditional financial service organisations, into service ecosystems enabling broad universal access to almost everything like enhanced purchasing experiences of vehicles and homes, online procurement of goods and services and lifestyle elements like rewards and travel. 

“These connectivity drivers will also act to future-proof evolving connectivity ecosystem by allowing us to offer untold future services while deriving income from as yet unrealised revenue streams,.   

From a customer perspective, the kind of ecosystems of knowledge, access and, ultimately, connectivity that banks will come to provide will radically transform the share of life that almost all individuals will be able to access.”

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Two-thirds of SA staff hide social media from bosses

With 90% of people in employment going online several times a day, it can be hard for most workers to keep their private and work-life separate during the working day (and beyond). The recently published Global Privacy Report from Kaspersky Lab reveals that 64% of South African consumers choose to hide social media activity from their boss. This secretive stance at work also extends to their colleagues, with 60% of South Africans also preferring not to reveal online activities to their co-workers.

Globally, the average employee spends an astonishing 13 years and two months at work during their lifetime. Interestingly though, not all this time is directly related to solving work tasks or earning a promotion: almost two thirds (64%) of consumers admit visiting non-work-related websites every day from their desk.

Not surprisingly, 35% of South African employees are against their employer knowing which websites they visit. However, more interestingly, 60% of South African are even against their colleagues knowing about their online activities. This probably means that colleagues constitute an even greater threat to future perspectives of an office slouch or maybe the relationships with colleagues are more informal and therefore, more valuable.

On the contrary, social media activity appears to be a less private domain for many and therefore, more suitable for sharing with colleagues but not the boss. This is probably because workers fear harming the public image of a company or interest in decreased staff productivity motivates companies to monitor employees’ social networks and make career changing decisions based on that. Such policies have led to 64% of South Africans saying that they don’t want to reveal their social media activities to their boss and 53% even don’t want to disclose this information to their colleagues.

A further 29% are against showing the content of their messages and emails to their employer. In addition, 3% even said that their career was irrevocably damaged as a consequence of their personal information being leaked. Thus, people are worried about how to build a favourable internal reputation and how not to destroy existing workplace relationships.

“As going online is an integral part of our life nowadays, lines continue to blur between our digital existence at work and at home. And that’s neither good nor bad. That’s how we live in the digital age. Just keep remembering that as an employee you need to be increasingly cautious of what exactly you post on social media feeds or what websites you prefer using at work. One misconceived action on the internet could have an irrevocable long-term impact on even the most ambitious worker’s ability to climb the career ladder of their choice in the future,” comments Marina Titova, Head of Consumer Product Marketing at Kaspersky Lab.

To ensure workers don’t fall prey of the internet threats at a work, there are some core guidelines to adhere to in the digital age:

  • Don’t post anything that could be considered defamatory, obscene, proprietary or libellous. If in doubt, don’t post.
  • Be aware that system administrators may at least, in theory, be informed about your web browsing patterns.
  • Don’t harass, threaten, discriminate or disparage against any colleague, partner, competitor or customer. Neither on social networks or in messages, emails, nor by any other means.
  • Don’t post photographs of other employees, customers, vendors, suppliers or company products without prior written permission.
  • Start using Kaspersky Password Manager to ensure your social media and other personal accounts are not at risk of unauthorised access by someone else in an office. Install a reliable security solution such as Kaspersky Security Cloud to protect your personal devices.

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