A forklift winds its way through the cavernous warehouse in search of a pallet, which it then ferries to a truck, crossing along its way other forklifts and then the driver … oh wait, there is no driver. Amid social angst about computers and robots taking people’s jobs “AGVs”, or automated guided vehicles, represent a shift of new tech from factory production lines into the wider economy.
The pallet is a humble but essential element of the modern economy, a wooden platform that allows all sorts of goods to be easily transported around factories, warehouses and stores by hand-pulled jacks or motorised forklifts. But their biggest advantage, standardisation, also makes them ripe for for automation. Cost reduction is the obvious goal for the C-suite when it comes to automatisation, but it is not the only one. Online commerce puts a premium on rapid delivery, and many logistics operations aim to run round the clock – but that only works if they can find the staff which, in some countries like the US where the labour market is tight, can be difficult.
That is where AGVs come in. Jean-Luc Thome, head of BA Systemes, a medium-sized French firm that makes AGVs, puts the growth rate at between 15 to 20 per cent per year. His is one of many smaller firms that are using automation to gain a foothold in the forklift market estimated to be worth more than US$16bn per year, and which already has the attention of major players like Japan’s Toyota and Germany’s Jungheinrich.