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With robots, forklifts will never be the same again

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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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Kenya tool to help companies prepare for emergencies

After its team members survived last week’s Nairobi terror attack, Ushahidi decided to release a new preparedness tool for free, writes its CEO, NAT MANNING

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On Tuesday I woke up a bit before 7am in Berkeley, California where I live. I made some coffee and went over to my computer to start my work day. I checked my Slack and the news and quickly found out that there was an ongoing terrorist attack at 14 Riverside Complex in Nairobi, Kenya. The Ushahidi office is in Nairobi and about a third of our team is based there (the rest of us are spread across 10 other countries).

As I read the news, my heart plummeted, and I immediately asked the question, “is everyone on my team okay?”

Five years ago Al-Shabaab committed a similar attack at the Westgate Mall. We spent several tense hours figuring out if any of our team had been in the mall, and verifying that everyone was safe. We found out that one of our team member’s family was caught up in the attack. Luckily they made it out.

At Ushahidi we make software for crisis response, including tools to map disasters and election violence, and yet we felt helpless in the face of this attack. In the days following the Westgate attack, our team huddled and thought about what we could build that would help our team — and other teams — if we found ourselves in a similar situation to this attack again. We identified that when we first learned of the attack, nearly everyone at Ushahidi had spent that first precious few hours trying to answer the basic questions, “Is everyone okay?”, and if not, “Who needs help?” 

People had ad-hoc used multiple channels such as WhatsApp, called, emailed, or texted. We had done this for each person at Ushahidi (their job), in our families, and important people in our community. Our process was unorganised, inefficient, repetitive, and frustrating.

And from this problem we created TenFour, a check in tool that makes it easier for teams to reach one another during times of crisis. It is a simple application that lets people send a message to their team via SMS, Slack, Voice, email, and in-app, and get a response. It also works for educational institutions, companies with distributed staff, as well as part of neighbourhood networks like neighbourhood watches.

This week when I woke up to the news of the attack at Riverside, I immediately opened up the TenFour app.

Click here to read how Nat quickly confirmed the safety of his team.

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Kia multi-collision airbags

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The world’s first multi-collision airbag system has been unveiled by Hyundai Motor Group subsidiary KIA Motors, with the aim of improving airbag performance in multi-collision accidents.

Multi-collision accidents are those in which the primary impact is followed by collisions with secondary objects, such as other vehicles, trees, or electrical posts, which occur in three out of every 10 accidents. Current airbag systems do not offer secondary protection when the initial impact is insufficient to cause them to deploy. 

However, the multi-collision airbag system allows airbags to deploy effectively upon a secondary impact, by calibrating the status of the vehicle and the occupants.

The new technology detects occupants’ positions in the cabin following an initial collision. When occupants are forced into unusual positions, the effectiveness of existing safety technology may be compromised. Multi-collision airbag systems are designed to deploy even faster when initial safety systems may not be effective, providing additional safety when drivers and passengers are most vulnerable. By recalibrating the collision intensity required for deployment, the airbag system responds more promptly during the secondary impact, thereby improving the safety of multi-collision vehicle occupants.

“By improving airbag performance in multi-collision scenarios, we expect to significantly improve the safety of our drivers and passengers,” said Taesoo Chi, head of the Hyundai Motor Group’s Chassis Technology Centre. “We will continue our research on more diverse crash situations as part of our commitment to producing even safer vehicles that protect occupants and prevent injuries.”

According to statistics by the National Automotive Sampling System Crashworthiness Data System (NASS-CDS), an office of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) in USA, about 30% of 56,000 vehicle accidents from 2000 to 2012 in the North American region involved multi-collisions. The leading type of multi-collision accidents involved cars crossing over the centre line (30.8%), followed by collisions caused by a sudden stop at highway tollgates (13.5%), highway median strip collisions (8.0%), and sideswiping and collision with trees and electric poles (4.0%). 

These multi-collision scenarios were analysed in multilateral ways to improve airbag performance and precision in secondary collisions. Once commercialised, the system will be implemented in future new KIA vehicles. 

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