Advancing the automated forklift

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by Emily Atkins

Seegrid has been building automated guided vehicles for warehouse operations for more than 15 years. At Modex this year the company showed its newest product, the Palion Lift.

In the Seegrid booth, show visitors saw the AGVs orchestrate material moves, pick and place at height, build and deplete pallet lanes, all without human intervention.

Jeff Christensen, Seegrid’s vice-president of product, explained how the company has been working on making the trucks’ vision system capable of engaging loads that may not be precisely positioned. “When that load might have been put there by a person and not by another robot it’s going to be off a little bit, it’s not going to be perfect in the way that automation expects things to be perfect.”

Parallel systems

The company’s engineers designed a parallel system that allows the lift truck to deal with imperfect scenarios. In addition to the normal vision system that all Seegrid machines use, the new lifts add a SLAM (simultaneous localization and mapping) system.

Christensen says it is well suited for the close-up work of identifying where a pallet is so that it can be picked up by a forktruck. “We’re taking enormous additional steps well beyond the navigation that we’ve been doing for many years. So, it’s a really exciting merger of the tried-and-true with an entirely new stack, and they’re both running in parallel all the time on the trucks,” he said.

But why should the customer care? “You care because that means it’s going to work every time. That’s the only reason that we do it,” he added.

A bold claim to be sure, but with Seegrid’s track record of well over seven million automated miles, the confidence may be justified. The trucks have rolled out to customers now, and repeat orders will be the proof of success, Christensen said.

Various platforms

Seegrid’s fork trucks are built on various different commercial models from Raymond, Mitsubishi Unicarriers, and Big Joe. But that doesn’t mean the Seegrid systems can just be bolted onto any old chassis.

“The control mechanisms under the hood are different for everybody, and when we put our name on it, we’re taking liability for its safety and its performance, and that means that we need to control all of those things. So from a cost-effectiveness standpoint, it doesn’t make sense to retrofit,” Christensen explained.

For now the fork truck has a 72-inch lift height, capped by the software onboard. “That’s to validate the sensing suite, that we’re very sure about these things, again, detecting the positive and negative space every time we pick and place a pallet,” Christensen said. But once it’s proven it can go up from there.

While the trucks are being sold outright, and not offered on the increasingly popular robots-as-a-service model, Christensen noted that there will be software updates about every four to six months.