Kiwis automate Linde reach truck

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A New Zealand company is claiming a world first – an automated standard reach truck for use in a commercial warehouse.

The Linde RX17 reach truck has gone into service at a site on the North Island owned and operated by global dairy giant, Fonterra Co-Operative Group. The dairy is planning to use seven such vehicles.

The automation system has been designed by Inro, a specialist in robot technology created by a group of postgraduate students from The University of Auckland.

It uses a system of camera and laser technologies called “Forkward-Sensing” which allows the trucks to interface with a satellite racking system and perform pick and put-away tasks with pallets of butter and cheese at heights of over ten metres.

A fleet of unmanned vehicles is capable of handling 2,000 pallet movements per day across 400 SKUs in the cool-store distribution centre, where temperatures fluctuate between 4°C and -10°C.

Inro chief Mark Templeton said: “So far our customers have had to choose between retaining manually operated forklifts or implementing automated guide vehicles which lack flexibility. The technologies we have developed create a third option – a fully automated forklift that can be driven when necessary. This has created the opportunity for forklift OEMs to make forked AGVs redundant.”

The Inro team started developing the technology to enable after developing an automation system for entry in the DARPA Grand Challenge race for autonomous vehicles in the US.

This latest project follows an automated counterbalance forklift system, which has been operational at a separate Fonterra site since 2008. There, two Linde H50 LPG forklifts manage over 300 tonnes of milk powder a day across three production lines.

Inro reckons this is delivering significant labour savings and reducing fuel usage by 29 per cent compared to manually-operated trucks performing the same tasks.

“Reduced wear and tear on vehicles is an additional benefit: tyres on automated forklifts need replacing only every second year, compared to annually on manually operated vehicles.”

Inro has developed a method of navigating, dubbed Environment-Based Navigation (EBN), that uses safety lasers to orientate off existing features of the warehouse such as racks, walls, and stored product. This removes the need for spinning lasers and reflectors which add cost, time, and complexity to traditional AGV projects.

Dynamic path planning software directs the vehicles via the optimal route based on the next required task and ensures the forklifts respond in real-time to changes within the environment. The system also features a complete 360? laser curtain, for increased safety in the presence of pedestrians and manned forklifts.

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