Warehouse forklifts and vehicles play an instrumental role in your supply chain operation, in more ways than most businesses can directly measure. So much of your distribution performance relies on materials being moved around quickly and accurately, that an investment towards improving forklift and forklift operator performance using modern technology can lead to a significant payoff. Warehouse Asset Tracking is a combination of hardware and software that can directly monitor, analyze, and optimize warehouse equipment workflows. When put to use in a systematic manner using Continuous Improvement principals, material handlers can reap huge rewards – all of which we’ll describe in this article.
Big Data Meets Material Handling
We’ve all heard phrases such as Lean Six Sigma and Reliable Manufacturing. These are industrial engineering topics that have developed over the last few decades into complete toolkits that help businesses systematically improve their operations. In the Supply Chain sector, these types of initiatives all fall under the umbrella phrase of Continuous Improvement, which is both a methodology and a philosophy that managers adopt to constantly improve their business’ overall efficiency.
Continuous Improvement (or CI) tells us that in order to perform work better, we must start with mapping our workflows, and then collect data about how these workflows are carried out over time. This data is then fed into decision systems that help managers find opportunities for improvement, as well as to find risks that threaten future performance. Ongoing statistical analysis is carried out into the future to further tweak and tune out inefficiencies.
Imagine an average modern warehouse operation: countless items and goods to handle, tons of fast-moving traffic, large order volumes to track and complete, all happening at the same time. This scale of activity is arguably not possible without the help of big data management systems, which at their root provide the day-to-day direction and information that employees need to do their jobs. A growing interest in the industry today is to expand these systems with Continuous Improvement features, arming them with the firepower to help eek out performance gains and claw back creeping operating costs.
No matter if your current warehouse operations are pure harmony or controlled chaos, there is always room for improvement. An excellent place to start in launching CI initiatives is around your warehouse fleet vehicles, as they represent both large-figure OpEx (Operating Expense) cost centers, as well as inherent risks should vehicles fail to perform (or suffer accidents).
Warehouse Vehicle Data Types
Forklifts, pallet jacks, yard tractors, personnel transports, and other warehouse vehicles can all be outfitted with data collection devices, and then integrated into managerial software systems for near-instant benefit. The hardware needed to gather this data varies widely between lift manufacturers, software titles, application features, communication standards, onboard interface styles, and more, but the overall concept and benefits are similar.
Below we’ll outline the types of information that are readily gathered via Fleet Asset Tracking systems, and how this data is used to strategically improve key business operations.
How individual operators use their forklifts and other fleet vehicles during any given workday can have drastic effects on overall warehouse performance.
Driver skill level and decision-making heavily bear on how much work can be accomplished in a shift, but these are difficult factors to see clearly without hard data. What makes a good driver “good”, for instance? Gathering data on how lifts are operated is the key first step in analyzing warehouse asset effectiveness, and then we can use this information to improve our operator’s decisions and habits over time. Examples of useful data to gather and what we can do with that data include:
|Idle and traveling times||Maximize forklift uptime|
|Location and routes traveled||Optimize and shorten travel paths|
|Onboard pre-shift checklist||Ensure safety compliance|
|Transit path and zone conflicts||Minimize waste and lost time|
A forklift operator’s decision-making process is only half of a complete warehouse asset evaluation. Equally important is the health and functional performance of the vehicles themselves.
Gathering functional data allows us to ask a second question of our assets. What makes a good lift “good”? Here we want to discern maintenance, wear and tear, and technical loading of our lifts, ultimately coming up with an image of how much effort it takes to manage our fleet. With this information, we can take action to reduce these costs and efforts in such ways as shown in the below table:
|Onboard diagnostic data||Predict maintenance needs|
|Impact sensor and camera feeds||Understand and prevent accidents|
|Run hours||Evenly distribute wear across fleet|
|Load capacity percentage||Assign vehicles to their most appropriate task|
Now that we have data on our operators’ decision-making process, as well as the health and reliability of our vehicles, we can present this data to management and ownership for business-level insight. Some warehouse asset tracking systems can compute the below metrics themselves, while others will provide only the input data to external ERP (Enterprise Resource Planning) systems such as SAP or Oracle to present on a corporate Business Intelligence dashboard. In either case, the objective is the same: businesses can leverage this commercial data to inform key company performance indicators (KPIs), supporting proactive and strategic management decisions as well as overall continuous improvement initiatives.
|Profit associated with vehicle purchases||Measure ROI (Return on Investment)|
|Profit associated with warehouse infrastructure||Measure ROA (Return on Assets)|
|Vehicle gross uptime and downtime||Measure Utilization|
|User-specified performance indicators and triggers||Real-time notifications and alerts|
Warehouse Asset Tracking Solutions
From the above sections, we now understand the benefits of gathering forklift asset data, and the improvements that this data can bring. How exactly do we use this data, and how exactly does it fit into a Continuous Improvement methodology? Let’s answer these questions by introducing two technology ecosystems that bring all of these elements together into a tidy, concise package.
Smart Fleet Management
Smart Fleet by Fairchild Equipment is a proprietary technology platform that allows business owners to track key ownership and operational metrics directly from their warehouse forklifts and other vehicles. Smart Fleet eliminates the guesswork on how to leverage that data via sophisticated reporting, analytic, and notification systems designed to reduce costs and improve productivity.
Smart Fleet gathers data encompassing all aspects of forklift ownership – service work orders, part orders, maintenance logs, rentals, and utilization. Smart Fleet compiles and reports this information via detailed dashboards to provide owners with information on annual costs, performance metrics, and functional insights, as well as makes suggestions on improvements and changes that can best optimize the use of their fleet.
Smart Fleet is a cloud-based platform that pulls data from business’ existing systems (such as maintenance systems, service order systems, and accounting systems), and on-machine data from fleet telematic instruments as described below.
For many businesses, measuring forklift metrics such as travel paths, uptime, accidental impacts, and fuel efficiency were done by simply asking the operator and writing down the results. Today, we can take the human element out of the equation and reach directly for raw data using technology systems known as Forklift Telematics (also known as Telemetry data). Telematics instruments are installed directly onto forklifts, construction equipment, and any other warehouse vehicle, consisting of a host of sensors and communication hardware (Wi-Fi, cellular, GPS, cameras, diagnostic, vehicle computer, and operator interface screens, to name a few options). These devices capture real-time, accurate, unbiased data right off the lift, and interact with the operator in the form of checklists, reminders, alerts, and alarms. All of this data and operator interaction is sync’d and recorded by central software.
Telematics capture is the heart of obtaining data that can be used to inform decisions and optimize workflows down to individual operators and lifts. If Operator A runs a pick route 10% faster than Operator B, telematics is the toolkit that can tell us the root cause of the difference. Perhaps one operator is taking a slightly different path, choosing to drive over the speed limit in the straight lanes, taking corners too fast to be safe, or is making unnecessary stops along the way. Obtaining this information directly from the lifts and without human opinions clouding the waters allows managers to act decisively, with everyone’s best interests in mind.
Continuous Improvement Example
Once businesses see a few days or weeks of data from their new Asset Tracking and Telematics systems, Continuous Improvement initiatives can be rapidly defined and launched to execute the suggested improvements found. For example, in a fleet of (10) forklifts, let’s say that (7) lifts and operators were found to be at 97% utilization, and the remaining (3) lifts at 48% utilization based on where those lifts were zoned in the warehouse.
From this data, a CI initiative can be rolled out to re-zone the lift spread to more evenly balance lift utilization, allowing the under-utilized lifts to save time and pull travel away from the over-utilized lifts. This CI initiative could be tweaked repeatedly over six months until the optimal balance of utilization and zones is found.
We hope that this discussion on Warehouse / Forklift Asset Tracking has been helpful to your commercial material handling needs. Fairchild Equipment is the Upper Midwest’s premier Material Handling Equipment and Service resource, with headquarters in Green Bay, Wisconsin, and 11 locations in 5 states ready 24/7 to serve your needs. For more information or to discuss which Warehouse Optimization solution might be best for you, please send us a message or call us at (844) 432-4724.