With the pandemic driving many an employee to home-office, those driving forklifts in warehouses were still having to travel to work on a daily basis… or were they? Turns out there’s a solution for that, too. Enter stage-left: Phantom Auto’s remotely operated forklift.
What looks like someone enjoying an interactive computer game, is in fact a forklift driver steering his way around the warehouse. Given that Phantom Auto’s Co-Founder and CEO, Shai Magzimof, spent 2 years as Head of Games with Viber before launching Phantom Auto in 2017, the picture is understandable. Yet, the remotely operated forklift is serious business, one that is starting to take off, and offers multiple opportunities.
The result of a GEODIS brainchild and tripartite development
The forklift’s initial debut took place earlier this year. On 31MAR21, the first successful tests took place in Levallois and Le Mans, France; the result of a long cooperation between GEODIS, Phantom Auto, and Fenwick-Linde1, to develop “the first remotely operated forklift, capable of being controlled from thousands of miles away.” GEODIS’ press release at the time underlined that “this cooperation stems from a creative idea from a GEODIS manager and was developed in the framework of the GEODIS internal innovation program. The solution uses a Fenwick forklift combined with Phantom’s secure, network-agnostic, and interoperable remote operation software to enable remote workers to operate the vehicle, unlocking efficiency and equipment utilization gains. For example, one remote worker can operate multiple forklifts at a number of warehouses at different times of the day, all from one central location.”
“Digital Drivers”: Enabling diversity and flexibility
The solution unlocks a great deal more. With forklifts being able to be controlled from a desk located thousands of miles away, this opens the job market to a vast and highly diverse range of candidates. Elliot Katz, Phantom Auto’s second (of three) Co-Founder and CBO, explained: “Our solution expands the labor pool by removing geographic restrictions to hiring. It's also diversifying that labor pool. Now forklift operator jobs can be filled by historically under-represented demographics in forklift operations including women, people who are geographically isolated, and people with disabilities.” Stéphanie Hervé, GEODIS’ COO Western Europe, Middle East & Africa, stated: “This innovation will be of benefit to the wider community and indicates the future of logistics operations. We believe that technology should serve people, and that is what this partnership with Phantom Auto illustrates”.
Serving the people includes ensuring safety and well-being
Sourcing staff has long been a problem for many warehouse operators, and the possibility to employ so-called “Digital Drivers” should solve this issue once and for all. As quoted above, those “Digital Drivers” can attend to practically any warehouse worldwide from anywhere in the world – the latter in theory benefitting areas otherwise suffering high unemployment figures. In addition to offering “employment opportunities to those who otherwise could not physically drive forklifts”, Hervé underlined: “Phantom Auto’s technology enables dynamic balancing of workforce allocation, safer warehouses, [and] enhanced worker well-being.” How? According to GEODIS' release, the digital solution helps to “reduce injuries and increase overall safety in warehouses” and “reduce the number of people physically inside warehouses to enhance worker comfort.” That the job can now be steered from the comfort of an office chair, is also a positive factor. Elliot Katz quotes a 90% reduction in workman's compensation premiums per driver when they are able to operate equipment remotely. Safety was the main deciding factor for Phantom Auto’s latest partner, too. Kristi Montgomery, Vice President of Innovation, Research, and Development at Kenco Logistics emphasized: “The sensor solutions and the outfitting that Phantom has put together is maybe safer than some humans driving.”
Kenco Logistics is Phantom Auto’s latest partner
Kenco Logistics recently came on board as Phantom Auto’s latest partner, and the first North American 3PL to offer remotely operated forklifts as a service to its customers. It aims to run a pilot program within its Kenco Innovation Labs, to look into achieving those benefits illustrated above: increasing labor accessibility, helping to maximize workforce impact, delivering improved workplace safety, and generating greater cost savings. “The Kenco Innovation Labs are our proving ground for new technologies,” Kristi Montgomery, Vice President of Innovation, Research, and Development at Kenco Logistics, explained. “Phantom Auto’s remotely operated forklift solution presents an exciting opportunity to transform not only how we and our customers think about the warehouse workforce, but also help expedite the investment into new technologies given recent equipment shortages.” Not just equipment shortage, but also people shortage is again an issue also faced by Kenco and Montgomery not only welcomes the opportunity to bring jobs to underserved communities and groups, but also the flexibility given by the elimination of employee travel time and their reallocation to warehouses suffering peaks or personnel shortages.
The remote people success factor
The fear at the forefront of many employees’ minds when they hear the words digitalization or automation, is “will I lose my job?” Montgomery points out “It's still a people-centric, human-centric solution. It's just I'm going to now be able to have humans not previously able to work in a warehouse environment work in a warehouse environment, which is really exciting!” And according to Katz, remote operation software is a winning formula: “We believe we have the key ingredient, a human in the loop.”
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