Driverless warehouses can combat industry's recruitment dilemmas
25 Feb 2022
More warehouse and distribution centre operators see driverless forklift truck technology as the solution to the staff recruitment and employment cost challenges they are facing, says VisionNav Robotics’ Jason Zhang...
Across the Eurozone a shrinking labour pool is hitting the logistics sector hard. And with HGV drivers, warehouse order pickers and forklift operators all in short supply, supply chain disruption has become a serious issue for many organisations.
While Covid and the economic and social upheaval that has followed in its wake is partly responsible for the current workforce crisis. Other factors – including a falling population of ‘prime age’ workers - suggest that the problem isn’t simply a bump in the road but something with which the logistics industry will have to learn to contend in the long term.
In the UK, 13 per cent of respondents to a recent survey undertaken by the leading trade association, Logistics UK, reported severe warehouse staff shortages, with a substantial decline in the availability of forklift drivers cited as a major problem.
By November 2020 the average forklift driver’s salary advertised on search engine Adzuna was £21,972, while warehouse staff positions typically paid £19,995 per annum. By November 2021 the remuneration for both forklift drivers and order pickers was up 8 per cent year-on-year. Over the same period vacancies for forklift drivers had surged 169%, while other warehouse job postings were up 143%.
For many, this means switching to automation. Unsurprisingly, a growing number of Europe’s warehouse and distribution centre operators consider driverless forklift truck technology represents the optimum solution to the recruitment and employment cost challenges they are facing.
Driverless forklifts undertake every type of task that would be expected of a traditional manually-operated forklift – including vehicle loading and unloading, pallet put-away and retrieval in both standard and very narrow aisle racking configurations, as well as pallet and stillage movements throughout the warehouse.
In addition to the obvious savings in labour costs that driverless forklifts bring, other benefits include: reduced damage to goods, racking and trucks, greater picking accuracy, as well as more efficient use of the available storage space.
The ‘vision-based’ navigation technology at the heart of VisionNav’s operator-free forklifts uses a vehicle-mounted camera to sense the environment in which the vehicle is operating. Information concerning the structural design and storage system layout of the facility where trucks are deployed is stored as off-line maps which the visual navigation system matches with real time images received from the camera to navigate the forklifts efficiently and safely around the store. With multiple vehicles controlled by the system, the trucks are directed to their next location via the shortest, fastest and safest route for optimum throughput performance.
Visual navigation technology is not only highly efficient but also quick and easy to install and brings a rapid return on investment. The highly flexible technology allows driverless industrial trucks to be adopted with minimal disruption to a site’s existing intralogistics process and, typically, ROI is achieved after a period of 18-24 months.
When the cost savings they bring are added to the fact that driverless lift trucks eliminate the staffing issues created by the shortage of qualified forklift drivers, it is not surprising that more companies are adopting automated technology to optimise the efficiency of their warehouse processes.
Jason Zhang is head of sales – Europe for VisionNav Robotics