New Frontier in Remote Work: Forklift Drivers

Two big freight operators are betting on technology that allows workers to operate forklifts remotely.

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. The companies say they plan to deploy thousands of remote-enabled forklifts over the next several years.

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 also can switch between forklifts in different locations.

The funding comes as investors are pouring billions of dollars into logistics technology aimed at helping businesses blunt supply-chain disruptions and meet strong demand.

Warehouse workers were in short supply before the pandemic. Staffing has gotten even tougher amid the post- pandemic supply chain strain.

NFI Chief Executive Sid Brown said the goal is not to replace workers but increase capacity. He said the technology will improve recruitment, including among people who like to play videogames.

“We have thousands and thousands of forklift operators,” he said. “If we can solve 30 percent to 50 percent of our warehouse job functions by utilizing the remote forklifts, I think that’s a real win for us. And if I can position people in different time zones—maybe Asia or South America or Europe—you can get people to work that may do a second or third shift” that is harder to fill.

Separately, ArcBest, parent company of LTL carrier ABF Freight, has been working with Phantom to integrate the startup’s software with autonomous technology ArcBest developed. The two companies plan to provide remote-autonomous forklifts to other customers this year.

Source: Wall Street Journal