Let automation bear the load10 June 2024

Forklift trucks

Autonomous forklifts are gaining interest due to their efficiency and ability to reduce labour costs, operator error and potential accidents

Even with fossil fuel power plants, Manufacturing plants, warehouses and logistics centres are encountering a number of issues with traditional forklifts – not least a high turnover in operators and rising wages. Furthermore, as around 70% of forklift incidents are due to operator error, it is little wonder that interest in automated forklifts is on the rise.

Continuous improvements in artificial intelligence and machine learning algorithms are set to make autonomous forklifts smarter, driving adaptability to dynamic environments and optimising operations in real time. Advances are also notable in the potential of autonomous forklifts to operate both inside and outside, a critical factor at many manufacturing and logistics facilities.


In December 2023, intralogistics specialist Linde Material Handling (MH) and the Aschaffenburg University of Applied Sciences (UAS) in Germany presented the results of the KAnIS (Co-operative Autonomous Intralogistics Systems) research project. Among the focus areas was the co-operative behaviour of vehicles that exchange information in real time via a 5G network and an edge server – and can warn each other of obstacles. The project ran for almost four years.

“The requirements for forklifts operating in outdoor areas are much higher than those for purely indoor vehicles,” explains Stefan Prokosch, initiator of the KAnIS project at Linde MH. “These include the ability to operate on inclines and gradients, the presence of a significantly higher volume of people and traffic, and different weather influences and temperature conditions. Thanks to our joint research with Aschaffenburg UAS, we’ve been able to develop viable solutions for these complex demands.”

KAnIS addressed challenges such as vehicle location, regulation and control, alongside other focus areas including forklift co-operation, load carrier recognition, predictive maintenance, route optimisation and automatic load management. Four automated Linde E20, E25 and E30 electric counterbalanced trucks featured in the trials.

Further development and testing of these vehicles is now taking place so they can perform specific material handling tasks, including the transport of wire mesh crates and pallets containing batteries. In these outdoor applications, the forklifts must overcome gradients of up to 8% and avoid other AGVs (automated guided vehicles) and manually operated vehicles. To ensure the four KAnIS forklifts can reliably pick up the pallets and wire mesh crates even if they do not demonstrate precise alignment with the floor, the vehicles feature a mobile camera mounted between the forks. The camera measures the pockets of the load carrier, making it possible to position the forks correctly via the side shift.


Indoors, the forklifts locate themselves via laser scanners, whereas outdoors they use high-accuracy differential GPS and additional local sensors. Unlike their manually operated counterparts, the vehicles always travel in reverse on their defined routes to prevent the load from slipping off the forks in the event of an emergency stop.

Another key focus area was identifying people in concealed areas who evade detection by the forklift’s sensors and approach the vehicle’s path of travel. This is where forklift co-operation comes into play, because if another forklift is in the vicinity, it can provide the relevant information. However, such functionality requires real-time transmission of the perception data. To achieve these low latencies, Linde set up a private 5G network. Perception data transmits from the forklifts to an edge server, which creates a global list of detected objects and sends it back to the autonomous vehicles. Since it is not always possible to assume that a second forklift is nearby, eight stationary 3D laser scanners sit at route intersections and gateways.

“Fast wireless networks are the prerequisite for autonomous forklifts so they act co-operatively in outdoor areas and react to unforeseen traffic situations in real time,” emphasises Dr Klaus Zindler, vice president for research and transfer at Aschaffenburg UAS. “Our goal is to develop general standards and algorithms using AI methods that are suitable for flexible application to different vehicles and applications.”


It seems the adoption of automated forklifts is ramping up at commercial facilities around the world. Worldwide Flight Services (WFS), for example, has commenced a proof-of-concept trial using Linde AGV forklifts in its cargo terminal at Barcelona Airport. Exploring the productivity and operational gains of automated solutions, the trial will last for seven months. If successful, WFS will roll out the technology at other locations.

Two types of AGV forklifts will be used at the Barcelona facility within the inbound and outbound operational areas. They will move cargo from the breakdown areas to racking storage locations inside the warehouse as well as to the cargo delivery area. The trial will explore how the vehicles are able to reduce the number of transport tasks currently undertaken by cargo agent personnel and assess opportunities for productivity improvements.


At the major tyre plant in Bridgestone Australia, the use of a robotic forklift is boosting both efficiency and safety. The company’s new warehouse in Truganina, Victoria is using an automated Dematic Counterbalance CB150-B forklift to manage, transport and store products on stillages. The vehicle also transports picked products for replenishment to selected handover locations, or outbound replenishment and order staging areas.

Tony Raggio, general manager of mobile automation sales at Dematic, says: “The main features of the automated forklift are its block-standing capability, as well as the ability to handle extended stillage sizes. Moreover, the CB150-B can stack and de-stack stillages.”

Deivide Nunes, Bridgestone’s warehouse manager at the plant, adds: “The forklift will streamline stillage movements by running pre-programmed routes, freeing-up manned forklifts for other important tasks.”

Warehouse supervisors interact with the automated forklift by entering the work requirement from zone to zone throughout the day. Supervisors can thus provide greater support to the operational teams when receiving and picking. The Truganina warehouse runs a long single shift that sees the automated forklift operate between 10-12 hours on a single charge. Dematic tailored its AGV Manage software to control all forklift movements between pick-up and drop-off locations. Operators can block and unblock locations as required.

“The software helps us better understand how the forklift is operating and if we need to make subtle warehouse layout changes to drive improvements,” reveals Nunes. “It provides the necessary reporting so that we can analyse with ease.”

With the ongoing development of forklift automation, these advanced vehicles will soon become a core component of modern plant, logistics and supply chain operations. The result? A welcome boost to boost competitiveness and bottom-line profitability for those prepared to invest.


According to forklift manufacturer Crown, it is crucial that automated fleets undergo regular inspection for any issues or needed repairs, with any critical components receiving a service as per the forklift provider’s recommendations and guidelines.

Damaged sensors, for instance, will require replacement and calibration to ensure the integrity of the automated forklift’s operation, an exercise that Crown suggests should only be performed by a knowledgeable and trained technician. The technician will also inspect and maintain the wiring and electronics that enable the vehicle to function without an operator. This requires technical knowledge of the location, form and function of each component, as well as the entire navigation system.

As with manual forklifts, plants should document every maintenance issue that occurs with automated vehicles over time, including the cost of each repair or service. Fleet management software, such as Crown’s FleetSTATS system, can help identify all the planned maintenance work orders and breakdowns within the year, and determine the planned maintenance-to-breakdown ratio.

Steed Webzell

Related Companies
Linde Material Handling

This material is protected by MA Business copyright
See Terms and Conditions.
One-off usage is permitted but bulk copying is not.
For multiple copies contact the sales team.