Driving Forklifts From Afar: How Teleoperation Expands Opportunities for Supply Chain Workers
For many, the pandemic-induced shift to remote work created an array of benefits—including less time and money wasted on commuting; the potential to live in communities not connected to a workplace location; and the potential for a better work-life balance (for those disciplined enough to end the workday at a reasonable hour).
But largely, discussions and predictions about remote-work trends have related to those working in office settings.
However, there’s another remote-work dynamic that’s rapidly gaining momentum: the surge in teleoperation that’s having a positive effect in warehouses and other locations along the supply chain.
The Emerging Role of Teleoperation and Telerobotics
A 2021 Research and Markets report, "Teleoperation and Telerobotics Market by Technologies, Solutions, and Applications for Enterprise and Industrial Automation 2021-2026," analyzed the “emerging role of teleoperation and telerobotics in the era of Industry 4.0.” and predicted that by 2026, the global teleoperation and telerobotics market will reach $76.5 billion.
Additional key findings included:
“North America will lead the teleoperations and telerobotics market through 2026”
“AI software in support of the teleoperations market will reach $4.9 billion globally”
“Tele-maintenance solutions will grow at highest CAGR during forecasted period globally”
“Cloud robotics as a service use cases will increase over 70% due to teleoperations solutions”
A press release announcing the report defines teleoperation as “the ability to operate equipment or a machine from a distance” and notes that “a specific form of teleoperation involving remote control of a robot from a distance is referred to as telerobotics.”
Additional report highlights include:
“Teleoperation and telerobotics are both supported by ICT infrastructure including broadband communications, sensors, machine to machine (M2M) communications, and various Internet of Things (IoT) technologies. The combination of teleoperations, M2M/IoT, and 5G communications will enable entirely new use cases for robotics, supported by cloud-based robotics as a service business models.”
“Enhancements in wireless broadband are untethering teleoperation. Prior to 5G and Mobile Edge Computing (MEC), Teleoperation is largely relegated to fixed communications connections. 5G and MEC will enable Teleoperation anywhere there is 5G coverage, enabling many new consumer and industrial automation scenarios involving robotics. In particular, we anticipate realization of substantial benefits as a result of the teleoperation market embracing cloud robotics deployment in conjunction with 5G in private wireless environments.”
“In addition, cloud robotics enables teleoperation/telerobotics as a service model, allowing fractional ownership and/or usage on demand. This will greatly expand the availability and usage of machines for industrial as well as enterprise applications. As a result, many smaller companies within a given industry vertical value chain will be able to leverage telerobotics and teleoperation solutions without large capital expenditures.”
Predictions like these were also highlighted in the 2022 MHI Annual Industry Report, which we covered in a recent post, How Supply Chain Disruptions Are Fueling Tech Investments.
According to the report, Evolution to Revolution: Building the Supply Chains of Tomorrow,
“Cloud computing, which is now the standard platform for most supply chain software, continues to have the highest current adoption rate at 40%.”
“Industrial Internet of Things, currently 21%, is expected to grow to 80%.”
“Robotics and automation, currently at 28%, is expected to reach 79%.”
Case in Point: Remote-Operated Forklifts
One of the teleoperation scenarios being played out in this context was captured in a January 2022 headline from the WSJ: “Freight Operators Plan to Deploy Thousands of Remote-Operated Forklifts.”
“Trucking company ArcBest Corp. and logistics provider NFI Industries Inc. led a $42 million investment to back startup Phantom Auto Inc.’s remote vehicle operation software and plan to deploy thousands of remote-enabled forklifts over the next several years…,” according to the WSJ. “South San Francisco, Calif.-based Phantom’s technology allows off-site drivers to operate equipment using video and audio streams, opening up freight-handling jobs to workers in other regions. Operators can switch between forklifts in different locations depending on demand.”
That’s just one of many stories describing the relationships Phantom Auto has been building with supply chain stakeholders and the growing role the company has been playing in the teleoperations and telerobotics sectors over the past several years.
These snippets from the company’s homepage help to describe their offerings and the impact they’re making to create new opportunities for both workers and their employers:
“Drivers can work remotely, too. Solving the labor shortage in logistics with human-centered remote operation.”
“Remote operation for smart logistics. Phantom enables people to remotely control vehicles across sites from thousands of miles away — with just the click of a button.”
“Tap into labor anywhere with the click of a button. Remote operation keeps modern logistics businesses moving — rack after rack, site after site, day or night. Increase productivity across your supply chain by tapping into labor when and where it’s needed.”
“Connect people with jobs that need to be filled. Solve driver shortages by expanding and diversifying access to labor. Employees can now remotely monitor, guide, and operate forklifts from the comfort and safety of an office located anywhere in the world.”
“Revolutionize operator safety and comfort. More than 1 in 10 forklifts are involved in accidents each year. Move forklift operators from hazardous warehouses into office buildings to reduce injuries and lower workers' compensation premiums by as much as 85%.”
Phantom Auto’s YouTube page has numerous videos available that describe the capabilities of their offerings—including this one: “Click. Connect. Drive. | Remote-enabled Autonomous Forklifts with Phantom Auto and ArcBest.”
Phantom Auto is certainly on a roll—demonstrating how teleoperations and telerobotics can help to address a number of supply chain challenges.
Recently, at MODEX 2022, MHI announced that the company was the recipient of one of its 2022 Innovation Awards: “Best New Product: Phantom Auto for Remote Operation Platform Logistics.”