As the COVID-19 pandemic has spurred warehouse and logistics operators all over the world to implement social distancing policies, the work-from-home trend is spreading to an unlikely occupation – material handlers.
Phantom Auto, a provider of interoperable remote operation software, is enabling humans sitting up to thousands of miles away to remotely operate unmanned forklifts, tuggers, yard trucks, robots, and more. This human-in-the-loop approach enables logistics operators to increase worker safety and health, reduce downtime, and unlock multi-site efficiencies by “teleporting” flex staff on-demand. Phantom’s solution is being used to:
- Fully remotely operate unmanned material handling vehicles, such as forklifts and tuggers
- Complement autonomous mobile robots (AMRs), automated guided vehicles (AGVs), and other autonomous vehicles by remotely monitoring many vehicles simultaneously and “zooming in” to remotely operate vehicles when the autonomy needs human assistance.
Phantom has already integrated its vehicle-agnostic software solution across multiple types of material handling equipment, including pallet jacks, tuggers, counterbalances, and stackers, from manufacturers including UniCarriers, KION Group, and other leading OEMs. The Silicon Valley-based company, backed by Bessemer Venture Partners and other leading investors, is rapidly expanding within the logistics and manufacturing industries and powering use cases as broad as material handling, yard operations, and last-mile delivery for companies such as ITS ConGlobal and Postmates/Uber.
“Over the past several years, we’ve seen how our remote operation solution helps customers achieve unmanned operations sooner while delivering greater safety, uptime, and operational resilience,” said Jordan Sanders, VP of business & marketing at Phantom Auto. “Whether by deploying fully remotely-operated vehicles or by using Phantom’s solution to complement autonomous vehicles, we are providing the logistics industry with human-centric technology that transforms their operations today and will remain a critical centerpiece as they scale up their unmanned operations in the future.”
Next-gen material handling equipment: remotely operated, safer, more efficient
For employers, labor costs such as worker’s comp and the cost of turnover (including training and recruiting) represent a huge component of the cost of operations. In 2018, employee turnover in manufacturing reached 33%, and one of the primary reasons cited is difficult and strenuous working conditions. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates that about 20,000 workers are seriously injured in forklift-related incidents annually in the U.S. alone.
Access to labor pools, especially in remote or rural areas, is also a significant challenge. According to Deloitte, the Manufacturing industry alone is facing 2 million jobs that will go unfilled by 2025.
To understand the market opportunity and reverse these trends, one must consider the impact of remote operation on health & safety, productivity, and labor accessibility.
Health & Safety: Remote operation removes employees from potentially dangerous environments – drastically reducing the risk of on-site injuries – leading to increases in worker health, safety, and job retention. Reduced operational risk also drives lower insurance premiums along with other cost efficiencies.
Phantom has partnered with SICK, a leading manufacturer of safety sensor products for industrial applications, to ensure the highest level of safety. Using a robust suite of sensors and real-time communication, Phantom enables remote operators to have a full view of the environment to safely and confidently operate the vehicle from thousands of miles away.
Phantom is able to protect workers around the vehicle and protect the equipment from potential damage with SICK’s microScan3 safety laser scanner. Phantom paired the microScan3 with a suite of SICK’s FlexiSoft safety processing devices to ensure the data coming from microScan3 is routed and processed end-to-end at performance level D.
Phantom is also closely engaged with SICK’s services group, which provides safety services for any organization in need of a comprehensive understanding of the risks to safety that their operations might entail.
“Phantom specifically contracted SICK to provide Risk Assessments and Safety Concepts to ensure they have performed the highest-quality and farthest-reaching due diligence,” said Alex Gilblom, logistics automation account manager at SICK. “Their operators, customers, and stakeholders at large are all well-informed and well-protected as a result.”
“Remote operation can drastically increase safety in dynamic logistics environments,” Gilblom added. “SICK is proud to work closely with Phantom in supporting their mission to get drivers out of hazardous environments and reduce the risk of injury.”
Productivity: With the ability to instantly “teleport” between vehicles, remote operation drastically reduces operator and vehicle downtime. Within a single site, an operator can eliminate walking and travel time between vehicles by switching vehicles within an operator application on their desktop.
Across multiple sites, operators can be redistributed on-demand to address demand surges and overflows. Remote operators can also provide flex labor capacity across time zones and sites.
Labor Accessibility: Remote operation enables drivers to be located anywhere — for example, a driver in Ohio can control a vehicle in California. This capability enables employers to tap into previously inaccessible labor pools, because remote employees no longer need to be within commuting distance of a particular site.
Employers can also seek to arbitrage the cost of labor by hiring from a broader set of geographies. The new mode of operation expands labor opportunities for people with disabilities, and also creates opportunities for upskilling in a new and improved work environment, leading to higher retention.
Scaling remote operation across vehicles and sites
Some Phantom Auto customers are using its interoperable Control Center platform to roll out remote operation capabilities across multiple fleets, including forklifts, tuggers, yard trucks, warehouse robots, and other unmanned vehicles.
ITS ConGlobal, North America’s largest integrated intermodal service provider, is using Phantom’s interoperable software to remotely operate yard trucks, forklifts, and other material handling equipment. “Cross-fleet remote operation will deliver revolutionary benefits and will be the foundation for scaling our company’s tech-enabled operations,” said Brant Ring, CEO.
As the demand for autonomous vehicles grows in an industry that places a premium on safety and reliability, it is clear remote operation is a complementary and necessary technology to deploying and scaling autonomy. Having a remote human in the loop is the missing link in the autonomy roadmap that enables humans to remotely address edge cases and situations that are not supported by autonomy. Remote operation gives end-users confidence in operational uptime and reliability.
“Our goal is not to replace people with technology — our work involves a high degree of operational complexity, and we need people to remain in control of the equipment,” said Ring. “Instead, we are using technology to increase the safety, productivity, and impact of our most important resource: people. Remote operation will increase our enterprise-wide operational resilience so that we can better serve the needs of our customers right now and well into the future.”