Chain of Thought

Lift Trucks in Sensurround

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Last month at Microsoft 's MIX conference, the company announced a tool kit is coming for developers to build motion-sensor applications to run on Windows and Kinect. Kinect motion sensors are used in Microsoft's Xbox 360 video-game system. According to Microsoft, these sensors will eventually transcend the mouse, the keyboard and even the touch screen.

The sensors obviously did their job, because developers who attended the MIX conference were moved to think about business applications for them after seeing demos by Microsoft researchers. One Microsoft guy showed how he could fly through the universe using imagery captured by the worldwide telescope project. In another demo someone rolled out on stage in a recliner–steering by waving his hands in front of a Kinect sensor connected to a Windows PC on his lap.

An attendee who had already been researching uses for Nintendo Wii technology had one thing on his mind after seeing all this: Forklifts. According to the Seattle Times, Tohru Katori, president and founder of Tokyo-based developer Azest, is starting to think about how the technology could be applied to forklifts, robots and assembly lines.

“We think of using this technology for smart grid or smart inventory,” he said, such as directing a robot to move parts around a warehouse.

Roger Bostelman has similar ideas. He's project manager at the National Institute of Standards and Technology Intelligent Systems Division. I spoke with Roger by phone recently while researching an article on lift truck trends for MH&L's upcoming June issue. He mentioned the Kinect sensors and that his research team is already starting to do measures on how these could be applied to lift trucks. He's impressed by the quality of the 3D imaging, which can pick up the profile and motions of a person. He believes the costs of this technology will come down enough for it to be justifiable for industrial applications.

“The initial ones were $150 apiece, but I've been told they'll go down to about $60 apiece,” he told me. “When you go down to those numbers, you could put five sensors on a vehicle and put a full surround 3D imaging system on it.”

Do we really need to turn lift trucks into rolling sensurround experiences for their operators? Bostelman thinks as the technology gets more mainstream and managers get "fed up with accidents," a solid case could be made for it. In the near term lift truck OEMs will continue to improve alerts and give operators better visibility. In the longer term, he sees a time when, if an operator doesn't react within a certain period of time to something, the vehicle will take over.

“The piece that's missing is identifying which objects are human,” he says. “These lift trucks are made to bounce into things, so if the driver constantly gets alerted about there being just a box in the way, the driver could get inundated with such alerts because the sensor would say you're too close to something. The real key is, which one of those objects is a person? To just sense anything in the environment would be ridiculous. It has to be intelligent enough to know what's a person and what isn't—unless they're working around delicate equipment, then it should know about the other stuff too.”

All vehicles have blind spots—so, in effect, lift truck operators are blind in some instances. Up to now, design engineers have been doing their best to redesign masts and contour edges so visibility is maximized. Nevertheless, there are times when an operator is—for all intents and purposes—blind.

But once sensor-equipped lift trucks start taking over for operators to avoid unseen close encounters, maybe blindness will only be in the eye of the beholder.

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Tom Andel

Editor-in-Chief Tom Andel oversees the strategic development of MH&L and MHLnews.com, bringing 30+ years of thought leadership and award winning coverage of supply chain, manufacturing logistics...

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During his career Dave Blanchard has led the editorial management of many of Penton Media’s best-known brands, including the company’s flagship title, IndustryWeek, as well as Logistics...
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