Pallet Detection Systems Help Automated Forklifts Modernize Warehouse Operations

By Garrett Place, Manager, ifm Business Development and Robotics Perception

All too frequently in a busy warehouse, product is damaged when the forks within a forklift do not accurately align within the pallet pockets. This pushing or dragging the pallet causes “miss picks” and ultimately may lead to downtime or a hazardous condition.

The need for speed often means that pallets may be turned at a slight angle from the norm or placed perpendicular to the aisle, leaving no clear approach to insert forks into the pallet pockets. Both of these conditions challenge the completely autonomous forklift (AFT), which follows pre-programmed paths, magnetic tape, and rack reflectors from staging area to pallet rack. Giving the AFT a way to “see” the rack, through pallet detection technology (machine vision or computer vision) can significantly reduce the pushed racks and damaged goods that can trap an AFT in an aisle for hours.

Machine vision increases overall equipment efficiency (OEE), which is the gold standard for measuring manufacturing productivity and is based on the equipment’s availability, performance rate, and quality rate.

Pallet Detection System Insights

AFT customers have multiple sensing options for pick-and-rack operations, with each technology offering different pros and cons.

Commercially available automated pallet detection systems (PDSs) use a variety of remote sensing technologies. Cutting-edge, solid-state, embedded time-of-flight (ToF) solutions offer the speed of stereoscopic systems without the higher cost and additional computer requirements while providing full 3D sensing capability across an entire field of view.

And unlike lidar scanning systems, which provide only a 3D cross section of a rack or pallet and pose aiming challenges on high lifts, a PDS can sense the complete shape of a stacked 3D pallet or rack. Useful data from lidar systems is further reduced by computational algorithms that filter out reflectors and other outlier data points caused by highly reflective materials, such as plastic shrink-wrap, resulting in less data for robust AFT guidance and potentially reducing OEE metrics.

ToF camera-based PDSs offer other benefits, such as the power of the illumination system, which can penetrate shiny materials such as plastic shrink-wrap better than lasers can. They are impervious to ambient light, another problem for traditional machine vision AFT sensing systems.

Software That Keeps Getting Smarter

The final piece of the PDS puzzle lies in software that adds intelligence to the AFT’s sensory system. Developing and optimizing PDS detection algorithms takes real-world warehouse test suite environments with hundreds of different pallet types, conditions, and configurations.

ifm engineers moved their development from the lab to a warehouse test suite, quickly ramping up their pallet training library from a handful of samples to more than 300 pallets. From there, the test suite has grown to more than 1,000 pallet types, conditions, and variations.

PDS software needs to be able to quickly locate any pallet pocket, whether on a GMA or CHEP pallet, a US CHEP or an Australian CHEP pallet, or a damaged pallet or skid. And because pallets and pallet mixes are always changing, the software needs to be tunable to adapt to changing pallet dimensions and to differentiate pallet structures from other configurations.

For example, a PDS needs to be able to differentiate between two pockets on a single pallet of unique dimensions and the appearance of a unique pallet created by the pockets of neighboring pallets. Such situations can quickly overwhelm a homegrown AFT sensing solution. So ifm works with partners in real-world warehouse scenarios to improve the robustness of PDS warehouse intelligence.

Pallet Partners

To develop a robust PDS algorithm capable of improving OEE without interrupting existing operations, ifm worked with several large distribution enterprises, refining their PDS algorithms as the test suite increased from 300 to 500, 700, and well beyond 1,000 pallets, pallet types, and pallet conditions. And ifm continues to add to that test suite.

The years required and millions of picks necessary to develop a robust PDS solution lead many customers to realize that what they seek isn’t a technology or a solution but a partner in automated warehouse optimization.

Tackling the PDS solution from all sides and perspectives not only helps develop robust algorithms but also adds to overall system efficiency and reduces cost of ownership. ifm designed an algorithm to run directly on the O3D3O3 camera at the heart of its PDS. This highly integrated, embedded solution runs faster than competing solutions because all processing is done on board the AFT, reducing the robot’s need to communicate with remote servers and guidance systems. Highly optimized, embedded solutions run faster than PC host and AFT controller-based solutions, improving OEE metrics while reducing maintenance requirements, since embedded hardware and operating systems are supported longer than consumer-grade solutions.

AFT success requires more than technology

Choosing an AFT PDS requires more than familiarity with 3D sensing systems and mobile robots. It takes a partner that understands the challenges of the modern warehouse environment.

ifm’s unique position in the industrial electronics, machine vision, robotics, and warehouse industries for more than 50 years give its engineers a 360-degree understanding of the challenges facing warehouse and plant managers struggling to squeeze more productivity from their material handling systems. With attention to both picking and racking, ifm’s solid-state PDS solutions deliver just the right amount of functionality at the right price and with the ruggedness and reliability that warehouse operations require.

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About ifm

ifm electronic, the parent company of ifm efector, is one of the world’s largest manufacturers of industrial sensors and controls, producing more than 22 million products annually. About 7,200 dedicated employees serve over 174,300 purchasing customers worldwide. ifm has more than 70 subsidiaries located in all major countries.

ifm efector USA was established in 1985. Its corporate headquarters, production facility and logistics and distribution centers are located in Southeastern Pennsylvania. A sales team of trained engineers is located in all major industrial markets throughout the U.S.

The ifm Customer Support Team is comprised of technical engineers and customer service representatives who strive to provide first-time call resolution. ifm’s logistics process is designed to reduce lead-time from the time an order is received to delivery. 90% of orders are shipped complete within 24 hours. For detailed product information, visit

For more information contact:
Garrett Place, Manager Business Development – Robotics Perception
ifm efector, inc 1100 Atwater Drive, Malvern, PA 19355
phone: +1 610-524-2017 mobile: +1 484-343-5676

Sponsored content by ifm

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