When the pandemic hit in March 2020, many companies required their employees to work remotely, or gave them the option to do so. That choice wasn’t possible for many people who work at warehouses, distribution centers and manufacturing facilities. The nature of their jobs—operating equipment, moving material or loading trucks—required them to be physically present.
Some industrial workers were more fortunate, however. Improvements in automation, sensors, software and connectivity enabled them to monitor facility activities, access data and make operational decisions from many miles away.
New technologies could soon provide even more facility workers in manufacturing and supply chains with the opportunity to take on their job without being on site
Driving from a distance
Manufacturing and distribution center facilities have been having trouble getting enough people to staff their operations for several years. The pandemic worsened the situation, and it hasn’t improved as the economy has opened up. Forklift drivers, for example, are in very short supply.
Phantom Auto, which specializes in the remote operation of all types of vehicles, has developed what it calls a teleoperation solution. With its technology, a trained operator can drive an autonomous forklift, pallet jack and/or tugger throughout a warehouse or distribution center while working from a location thousands of miles away.
The system uses real-time video and audio streams, sent via a network connection to a remote operator, who can see the facility environment and the forklift in real time. The operator uses a console to control the forklift’s operations.
“If you’re a remote operator, we’ve created an experience that simulates exactly the experience you would have in the warehouse,” said Elliot Katz, Phantom Auto’s co-founder and chief business officer.
There are two ways to use the technology. One approach enables a single remote operator to monitor multiple autonomous vehicles, such as forklifts, across many different locations. When an autonomous forklift comes across an unexpected obstacle or event that causes it to stop (an edge case), the operator can intervene. The remote driver may provide a simple instruction, such as telling the forklift to turn right or left, or might temporarily take control of the vehicle and drive it until the problem is resolved. The forklift could then return to autonomous operations with the remote worker once again monitoring it.
With Phantom Auto’s other application, the remote worker operates a single forklift at a time, driving it just as they would if actually sitting in the driver’s seat.
Safer environment, greater productivity and happier workers
Katz said companies that use the teleoperations solution for operating forklifts or other equipment could benefit in three areas: health and safety, labor accessibility and productivity.
“More than one in 10 forklifts are involved in accidents each year, which can lead to serious bodily injury or even death. With remote operation, companies are moving the forklift operators physically out of the warehouse and out of harm’s way,” he explained.
“From a health standpoint, remote operation enables companies to reduce the number of people physically inside their facility, which has been critical to our customers starting in March 2020,” he added. With fewer people onsite, there’s less opportunity for COVID-19 and other illnesses to spread.
Moving forklift operators out of hazardous, in-facility locations can save the employer money as well—as much as a 90% reduction in workers’ compensation premiums, according to Katz.
Operating forklifts remotely could help alleviate the severe shortage of workers for manufacturing facilities, warehouses and distribution centers, because it expands the labor pool from which companies can draw. Hiring managers aren’t restricted to a pool of people within commuting distance; they can give jobs to people in any location where there’s a reliable network connection. (While the technology is currently set up for use in offices, home-based operations may one day be possible as well.)
Phantom Auto’s technology also opens up positions for disabled individuals who can’t work in an actual facility but could run a forklift virtually. The option could attract people who don’t usually apply for such jobs.
Teleoperations could also increase productivity because operators don’t waste time walking from one forklift to another; they can just switch vehicles within the application. Plus, if there’s a sudden surge of product that requires more forklifts at one location, remote operators can quickly “move” to that facility and operate forklifts there. In addition, managers can more easily monitor operators’ activities.
“With remote operation, we’re increasing the productivity, the flexibility, and the safety and health of companies’ most important resource, their people. It’s a human-centric technology that makes employees’ jobs better,” said Katz.
Despite the proliferation of autonomous mobile robots (AMRs) and autonomous guided vehicles (AGVs), Katz said teleoperation provides yet another solution. “Autonomy is an amazing technology, but it’s not fully there yet,” he explained.
Teleoperation technology is currently being tested in France under a multi-year partnership between Phantom, and MHI members GEODIS and Linde. In a press release, GEODIS said the test is “the precursor of a revolution in the nature of work in the logistics industry, expanding opportunity to people from historically underrepresented demographics (e.g., women, people with physical disabilities, geographicallyisolated, and more).”
In the U.S., WERC member Kenco Logistics is testing the Phantom Auto technology in its innovation lab. The goal is to offer the service to Kenco’s customers in its 90-plus distribution centers throughout the country, Katz said. Phantom has also partnered with Mitsubishi Logisnext America’s group, which will be offering Phantom’s software integrated into some of its electric-powered forklifts.
Phantom Auto hasn’t limited its teleoperations activities to inside industrial facilities. Some remote operators are also driving yard trucks.
Remote design and testing
For MHI member DMW&H the concept of a remote warehouse workforce was considered theoretical rather than practical pre-pandemic. That changed after March 2020. While its employees still have to perform some tasks on site, including the mechanical and electrical work required for installing its automation and control systems, the company has realized that it’s possible for employees to effectively perform some design and testing activities remotely.
One of the biggest changes that the company made due to COVID was in the mapping out of a facility space prior to designing an automation system. Previously, DMW&H engineers had always gone physically to the site to take measurements and to look for obstacles like columns or air conditioning systems. “We were provided with layouts and drawings, but we had to go to the site to make sure that they were accurate down to really minute distances,” explained Francis Said, DMW&H’s vice president of integration and engineering.
Now the company is relying on 360-degree images of the facility taken by laser measuring devices. The images, accurate to millimeters, are uploaded to a file that can be imported into AutoCAD. The engineers then work with a 3D model of the space, fitting in the equipment and quickly finding and dealing with any conflict problems without setting foot in the warehouse.
DMW&H also found a good alternative to its previous, on-site testing procedures.
“There are tools out there that let us emulate the subsystem level, the electromechanics of the system itself. We can hook up the programmable logic controllers (PLC) directly to this emulation model and remotely do a lot of testing that we would otherwise have to do physically on-site,” explained Said. Employees were able to run entire systems and simulate possible issues so they could eliminate potential complications from a distance.
Data enables more remote work
A decade ago, manufacturing and supply chain data analysis could not have been done from a remote location. It had to be completed onsite to get up-to-the minute information about equipment, inventory, shipments, etc.
That’s no longer the case. The proliferation of sensors and RFID tags throughout a facility, coupled with increased automation and robotic solutions, has made it possible to collect information about current inventories, equipment performance, the facility environment, the receipt and shipment of goods and all other aspects of operations. The data is shared through the Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT) and stored in the cloud so that it can be accessed from anywhere and used quickly and easily to direct operations.
For example, MHI member Zebra’s SmartPack™ Trailer installs a specialized load monitoring unit on the frame of the dock door to look inside a parked trailer. It digitizes the trailer loading and unloading workflows through the use of cameras (a digital camera and a 3D infrared camera). Managers can track trailer utilization to minimize waste, and can monitor multiple dock doors at the same time, taking action immediately to alleviate problems.
Warehouse management software (WMS) and other software used to manage facility equipment and data continues to add capabilities that make people working remotely more productive.
“We’ve been building WMS, WCS, TMS and other applications with a real time mechanization of focus and ability and with a combination of analytics and insights, artificial intelligence and common user interfaces across all these platforms,” said Kevin Reader, director of business development and marketing, MHI member KNAPP. The data is presented in a standardized, consistent format however users access it—desktop, laptop or mobile.
Reader said Knapp’s new redPILOT control tower for warehousing and distribution provides real-time visibility into order flow, the status of workforce teams or individuals, and service-level or volume-level constraints. It provides facts about business operation and warehousing distribution that could impact performance and the allocation and use of resources. Warehouse managers can use the software’s predictive modeling, analytics and AI capabilities to project the impact of possible operational changes, and to make decisions based on that analysis to improve performance in real time.
Said noted that DMW&H’s warehouse customers have requested additions to the information that they get from the company’s software in order to gain better insights into their warehouse’s activities. Pre-pandemic, customers using DMW&H’s Shiraz™ WCS could access a 2D model of the warehouse that enabled them to see if their systems were up and running. “Now customers are asking, ‘Can you give me a 3D model so that we can actually see more of the conveyor itself, so we can see if it is full, if it is running, if it is jammed?’” Said added.
When managers can more easily see what is happening in the facility, they can react immediately from anywhere and make more informed decisions, preventing a bigger problem from developing down the road.
Employees changing expectations
Since the start of the pandemic, more companies have expressed interest in, or are currently, upgrading their facility equipment and systems to more sophisticated, automated, data-based technologies. Reader said the primary reason for this change is companies’ desire to be more flexible and to meet customers’ needs while controlling costs. But businesses are now recognizing their employees’ stake and interest in these systems as well.
“There’s an enormous amount of pressure on virtually every business these days post-pandemic to meet the needs of an emerging employee dynamic, where the expectation is at least some part-time, if not full-time, remote work,” Reader said. Employees want to be able to work from a home office, because they want a better quality of life or live in a particular setting.
“These are changes that are having a profound impact on employee churn, satisfaction and retention,” he added.
Hiring managers that want to attract top talent—or beat their competitors in filling worker vacancies—should be looking for ways to provide more opportunities for remote work utilizing these new technologies.
MHI cast related topic:
Remote Work Strategies
The material handling industry has gone through numerous changes over the past year, one of them being the implementation of remote work strategies. In this MHI cast episode, we speak to MHI members Larry Strayhorn and Bryan Jensen on their approaches to working remotely.