Automation in industry: a twin track to the future

With Industry 4.0 becoming more and more prevalent in the industry, the uptake of new technologies can look very different from business to business. FLTA Chief Executive Tim Waples explains the realities of the situation.

You only need to pick up an issue of any industry magazine to see the astonishing speed with which technology is changing in our sector. You’ll find lots of talk about Industry 4.0 and what it means for the future. Some of you may be more familiar with what the term entails as it can be quite broad, covering everything from robotics and automation to data and the Internet of Things.

For the forklift industry it marks a shift in the landscape. We’re seeing automation gain a lot of traction as more and more large companies choose to replace their traditional materials handling operations with automated alternatives.

And I can understand why.

From a business perspective, the benefits of going fully-automatic can be very appealing: a reduction in wages, slashed heating and lighting bills, no training costs and optimal use of space.

The biggest benefit, however, is automation’s effect on site safety. The forklift truck is officially the single most dangerous form of workplace transport according to the Health and Safety Executive (HSE), Britain’s national regulator for workplace health and safety.

While great strides have been made to make conventional materials handling equipment safer in recent years, the majority of accidents — and resulting injuries — are down to human error, rather than technological failure.

In simple terms: the biggest threat to your operation is your operators.

This is one of the most pressing problems facing the forklift industry and one that some are reluctant to discuss. We depend on humans — and their behaviour — to get the job done. Because, while there may be a time where technological advances remove humans from the equation, we are not there yet and may not be for some time. The practicalities, including investment of time and money, are a real stumbling block to making automation a reality for many businesses out there.

When it comes to commissioning, customising and installing an automated system, the costs to the business do not follow a linear path based on system size. For smaller operations the overheads can be relatively huge — sometimes up to 40 percent of the whole system. For larger companies these costs are often far easier to swallow.

That’s why, as an industry, we need to adopt a ‘twin-track’ approach to the future. This approach would see larger organisations, such as manufacturers, distribution centres and ports falling under one set of rules, with smaller operations working under another.

Stay vigilant

If you look at what comes onto the marketplace every year, you’ll see a vast increase in technology. Safety equipment such as cameras, anti-collision systems and sensors are many and varied. While the safety benefits of these systems are undeniable, there is a danger of operators becoming overly reliant on them.

Much like the stories you hear of people blindly following their sat-navs and ending up driving into a lake or river, the risk of people simply trusting the computer to make decisions on their behalf is frustratingly high.

As an employer it’s vital that these systems are used to compliment — rather than replace — a solid foundation of operator training and best practice. You don’t want the benefits to come at the expense of the operators’ skills and knowledge.

Learn the facts

On average, every day in the UK sees three accidents that result in life-changing injuries requiring hospitalisation — and the numbers are on the rise. All this is despite the UK having Europe’s most stringent health and safety legislation.

Nearly 60 percent of those affected are not operators, as you might reasonably expect, but those working alongside them.

Physical segregation (such as barriers and designated walkways) can be very effective at safeguarding pedestrians, but for many businesses it is not always practical to implement. Even when present the use is not always policed.

Count the costs

Every accident comes at a potentially enormous cost, not just the cost to the people involved, but in fines and damages that can run into millions of pounds and a genuine risk of prosecution. Where serious negligence occurs, those deemed responsible may face prison sentences.

In recent years, we’ve witnessed a threefold increase in HSE prosecutions of company directors and senior management — often resulting in significant fines and prison sentences.

Not all incidents end up with a court appearance or even jail time, so we have to consider the true cost of those everyday knocks and scrapes.

I’m aware of one leading UK supermarket chain that readily accepts an annual bill of around £3m for repairing or replacing damaged racking alone. That’s a lot of money for just racking.

Stock damage is another huge cost in accidents. A single dropped pallet of coffee will set you back more than £5,000. And that’s just the stock. When you consider the time, cost and productivity lost to cleaning up, and factor in restocking and recycling it really starts to add up.

Then there’s the cost to the truck itself. Forklifts can be expensive to repair and a damaged overhead guard, for example, could set you back thousands of pounds.

Over the length of a typical contract, bills for repairing damage to lift trucks are estimated to add as much as an extra 5 percent to a truck’s total rental price. Stretch this across a decent-sized fleet and you could be looking at a bill of as much as £100,000.

In the UK alone, these relatively minor spills and collisions cost businesses billions of pounds every year, and yet most of these costs are avoidable with just a minimum investment in better training.

So, while we are seeing more companies making the switch to automation, it’s important to bear in mind that we are not yet seeing this among many SMEs, who are statistically far more likely to be involved in accidents.

For these companies, it’s not a practical or affordable option at present. New technology takes time to mature and for costs to drop enough that it can filter down to the lower end of the scale. For now, they must continue running small forklift fleets in real-world situations.

Of course, small businesses don’t always look to stay small and many will be looking to expand, sometimes rapidly. Any plans for automation need to be flexible to scale alongside the business. Autonomous mobile robots can be a good fit in some businesses, with more units added to the system as the need arises.

But you also need to take into consideration that most racking has been designed with humans in mind. Adopting a partially automated system can require a rethink of the physical layout and structure of your work area. Automated robots often need a highly regulated, predictable environment, and that’s not always going to be the reality when working alongside real people.

A solid plan must be put in place for how the systems might work and change as the company hits certain milestones. How will it affect staffing? Will the operator training still be sufficient? Will a whole new training plan be needed?

If we want to see significant and lasting changes, management needs to step up and take ownership in order to influence company culture and behaviours at all levels — from shop floor to boardroom.

Automation is the future, there’s no question of that, but planning for the future shouldn’t mean taking your eye off the present.

If you’re unsure as to the best approach, your local FLTA Member will be able to provide suitable training or advise on an approved supplier, and the FLTA website (www.fork-truck.org.uk) contains a wealth of advice, guidance and resources on key safety issues.