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Warehouse & DC Management: Moving toward smarter lift trucks


Using sensors to track when a lift truck is in motion, when it is at rest, or when the forks are engaged in lifting and lowering, allows fleet managers to optimize the size of their fleets.

By Bob Trebilcock, Editor at Large
October 01, 2012

High technology, automatic data collection, sensors, and software are probably not the first words you associate with lift trucks. However, today’s lift trucks are highly sophisticated pieces of machinery.

“Over the last 10 or 20 years, the technology within the lift truck has evolved immensely,” says Mike McKean, sales and marketing manager for Toyota Material Handling USA. “The brains of the lift truck have grown. The dashboards display so much more information than in the past.”

That technology is moving beyond the dash. Thanks to sensors, microprocessors, and CAN bus technology, today’s lift trucks have the capability to collect and communicate lift truck data in real time.

In turn, fleet management software systems can use that data to manage the maintenance of the truck or monitor how a driver is operating the vehicle. It can perform that management for an individual truck or driver, a fleet of trucks, or team of drivers—in one location or across multiple locations. It’s possible to feed that information to other management software systems, such as labor management (LMS), warehouse management (WMS), or enterprise resource planning (ERP) systems, to drive process improvements.

“We’re not there yet, but we are moving toward a smart truck platform,” says Phil Van Wormer, executive vice president of sales, marketing, and business development for Total Trax, a third-party provider of fleet management software for lift trucks. 

Tracking maintenance
The earliest iterations of fleet management software were used to keep track of maintenance. Indeed, that is still the most common use of the technology, aiding equipment manufacturers to improve their products as much as end users.

“Using fleet management software, we know what repairs were made on what trucks and at what intervals of usage,” says Joe LaFergola, marketing manager of business and information solutions for Raymond. “If we see a trend developing around the failure of parts, we can do a root cause analysis on the affected parts and implement programs to reduce the cost there.”

For end users, maintenance systems are used to schedule planned maintenance events and to track unplanned and exception repairs. Those repairs can also be compared against the hours of use to see if a truck is getting more or less hours between repairs than is expected or if the truck is getting more maintenance than is necessary for the hours of operation. Together, they provide a snapshot of how the truck is performing and how it is being maintained.

Taken to the next step, the systems can be used to automate the components of a maintenance transaction. With intelligent dispatching, for instance, either the system itself or the end user can provide information that allows some problems to be solved without ever sending a technician. In the alternative, the system may ensure that a technician has the right tools and parts to address an issue on the first call.

“This allows us to obtain as much information as possible before a service call even gets to the dealer,” says Pat DeSutter, who is with Yale’s fleet management program. “We can then make sure we’re dispatching a technician based on the skill required and the availability of parts.”

About the Author

Bob Trebilcock
Editor at Large

Bob Trebilcock, executive editor, has covered materials handling, technology and supply chain topics for Modern Materials Handling since 1984. A graduate of Bowling Green State University, Trebilcock lives in Keene, NH. He can be reached at 603-357-0484 and .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)

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