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Seegrid – Are Robot Forklifts Stealing Jobs?

One of the many classic scenes in The Office is the very first scene ever when David Brent picks up the phone and tries to get one of his employees a fork lift driving job using a bit of old fashioned nepotism. Not a fan of the U.K. office are you? You say the U.S. version is better? You won’t get us to agree on that, but what we can all agree on is that in the not so distant future, robot forklifts may make the term “forklift driver job” go the way of Betamax videos, buggy whips, and 8 tracks.

The idea of having an automated system to move items in a warehouse has been around since the 1950s. These types of vehicles have been traditionally known as “automated guided vehicles (AGVs)” and are characterized by the fact that no human involvement is required to use them. This means that the implementations of these vehicles in warehouses are very basic and inflexible. Here’s a good a good comparison between AGVs and robot forklifts provided in a presentation by MWPVL:

Robot Forklifts

Here we can see that driverless forklifts actually need a high degree of human interaction which means that the old mantra about “robots just free up people to do more specialized work” actually makes sense in this case. It’s not just about saving labor costs by using robot forklifts, it’s also about liablities. See if you can find any warehouse manager who won’t roll his or her eyes when you mention OSHA and cite safety concerns as one of their biggest liabilities. Robot forklifts will never sue you because you ran over their foot and they won’t bring on any OSHA violations that will put your company in some very hot water. One company that is paving the way forward for robot forklifts to become adopted by warehouses everywhere is a startup called Seegrid.

Click for company website

Founded in 2003, Pittsburgh based Seegrid has taken in $53 million in funding to develop what they call “vision guided vehicles” that represent “the next generation of AGVs”. Unlike traditional AGVs, the Seegrid robot forklifts are 100% infrastructure free–operating without lasers, wires, magnets or tape–for unmatched flexibility. Having launched their first product in 2008, the Company’s impressive customer list now includes big names like 3M, Volvo, Walgreens, Whirlpool, and even the U.S. Postal Service. Here’s a look at their product line of robots that can be used in your standard warehouse setup:

Robot Forklifts by Seegrid

While these robot forklifts all look ultra-cool and futuristic, the real magic lies in the “fleet management” platform that allows them to be controlled. While before AGVs were restricted by methods of guidance, these forklifts all use 3D computer vision that takes 3 pictures a second in order to actually see where they are going and what they are meant to interact with. Here’s a look at how these vehicles are managed:

Seegrid Robotic Forklift Supervisor

So there are these guys in warehouses called “pickers” that are paid up to $20 an hour to fill orders by picking items from off the shelves in a warehouse and placing them on a pallet. These individuals often walk up to 20 miles a day doing tasks that should be automated. There is no value add to having a human do this mundane work and you’re much better off handing the reigns over to a robot. Here’s a quote from MWPVL that sees an ROI of about three years for Seegrid’s robot solution for “picking”:

The average material handler in the U.S. is now paid $47,000/year fully loaded, and price points for automated pallet jacks are as low as $80,000/unit

The irony about the city in which Seegrid is based, Pittsburgh, is that it once faced very vocal opposition when the steel industry was closed during a period of industrial re-engineering which led to Pittsburgh becoming somewhat of a technology hub out of which robotic forklifts have been developed. Seegrid’s robotic forklifts will also be opposed by labor organizations and forklift drivers everywhere but this will all be in vain as technology has a way of winning out when lower costs are at stake. Plus, the new jobs created that involve controlling robot forklifts will be infinitely cooler than the job of just driving a forklift.

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