Crown Equipment Connects the Dots

An interview with Crown’s Lew Manci, VP of Engineering…

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FL: Lew, when we sat down together at MODEX you talked about a number of technology developments, from Advanced Robotics to Social Media, and how they could impact the future of our industry. For a lift truck company, this is impressive. Is this a new strategy for Crown?

Manci: At Crown, we’ve always kept a close eye on how all technology—even in sectors not traditionally related to forklifts—might be applied to material handling. Industries like aviation, agriculture, automotive, military, consumer products and even healthcare are advancing in their use of technology at staggering rates, and we constantly evaluate the new technologies we see in those spaces and consider how they may be applied to forklifts, warehouses and the material handling industry as a whole. Following developments in other industries closely helps us to develop an even better understanding of what we can do with our products and services, including integrating more intelligence into our forklifts and using the forklift to connect the entire warehouse. 

FL: Google’s work on the driverless car and Nissan’s intention to introduce Autonomous Drive for its vehicles by 2020 suggests a lot is happening in the autonomous vehicle segment. How are these benefitting AGVs in the warehouse environment?

Manci: We believe that new technologies emerging from the automotive sector, when applied to AGVs, will provide AGVs the level of intelligence needed to expand how they are used in material handling. Warehouses are dynamic environments and present a number of challenges for AGVs. Things change quickly; one day you have pallets of goods on the warehouse floor, the next day the aisle is clear. Today, situations in the warehouse such as pallets being left in aisles or a damaged pallet needing moved require human intervention. Advances from companies like Google and Nissan, coupled with advances in lower cost sensing and robotic computing technologies, will allow more autonomous AGVs that can better respond to the ever-changing warehouse environment. 

FL: The next frontier for Advanced Robotics includes more collaborative robots and robots that can interact with humans. Is Crown working on anything in this space that you can share with us now?

Manci: Material handling has been a challenging application for robotics because of the variability in products and tasks in the typical warehouse. However, advancements in machine vision, artificial intelligence, sensors and actuators, along with lower cost microprocessors and memory, are resulting in more practical robotic solutions. Robotic palletizing and depalletizing are becoming more commonplace. Relative to mobility, Amazon’s acquisition of Kiva and Daifuku’s acquisition of Wynright demonstrate the potential of mobile robotics in the distribution center. Although there’s not anything specific I can share at this time, Crown envisions increased integration of robotics for picking and improved interaction among operators, forklifts and robotic systems.

FL: During our conversation you discussed the Internet of Things and how the lift truck could eventually function as a data-hub for indoor GPS. Can you expand on that?

Manci: Crown envisions a connected warehouse in which the forklift becomes not only a roving sensor that reaches parts of the warehouse no other system is reaching, but also a hub that collects data from various other devices, acts on this data, and consolidates and analyzes it for other systems. We’re already doing some of that through the Crown Insite products that deliver actionable data from forklifts, like the number of impacts and the amount of time the truck is in use, to help warehouse managers improve productivity, efficiency and safety. Following the truck’s movements through indoor GPS or location tracking is an evolution of that technology.

FL: Social networking combined with the growing ranks of Gen Y’ers in the workforce is another topic that our industry is talking about. What are some of the impacts from Crown’s point of view?

Manci: Millennials are tech-savvy workers who benefit from more interaction to keep them engaged; they will not relate to their machines in the same way as the current generation. The plugged-in nature of Gen Y is one reason we’re closely following gamification—using game design techniques and mechanics to engage audiences. Gamification will be increasingly integrated into all aspects of supply chain operations to improve training, safety and productivity—and to also increase employee retention.

In addition, mobile first (calling for each project’s solution investment to strongly consider a mobile component) is a huge trend based on the growing usage of mobile devices by all of us, including Gen Y’ers; this could evolve into “mobile only” for material handling as it has for other industries. And, mobile technologies will help deliver warehouse data anywhere, allowing us to put actionable data and analytics into the hands of executives, managers and supervisors across the supply chain. It will provide visibility into every aspect of the operation in a way that hasn’t been possible before.

FL: What are some other ‘disruptive technologies’ that Crown is watching closely?

Manci: Energy storage and big data are two other areas that we continue to watch closely. We are just beginning to tap into the potential of big data with the current generation of forklift fleet and operator management solutions. In the future we will likely see increasing integration with other information technology systems (WMS, WCS, LMS, TMS, etc.), coupled with cloud services, which will provide the needed visibility to further optimize end-to-end supply chain operations. Big Data will enable new levels of analytics, including predictive, to optimize supply chain processes and operations.

In terms of energy storage, the systems powering forklifts will almost certainly undergo a transformation in the coming years with two disruptive technologies competing for dominance: lithium ion batteries and fuel cells. These technologies are benefitting from the investments by the automotive industry and could significantly increase forklift runtimes, lower energy costs, and, in the case of fuel cells, eliminate the need for battery rooms.