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Tags that save lives

A partnership between USP and Ambev creates a system that prevents forklift accidents in warehouses

The gas pedal on a forklift is deactivated when an employee is in the way

Léo RamosThe gas pedal on a forklift is deactivated when an employee is in the wayLéo Ramos

Vehicle accidents do not happen only on streets and avenues. In industrial warehouses, where large cases of products are stored, this type of accident is relatively common. And these accidents are not caused by cars or trucks, but by forklifts: small vehicles about two meters long with room for just the driver. They are capable of loading and unloading tons of products on pallets and the operator often has to drive in reverse because the forks that support the load are located in the front of the vehicle and block the driver’s view. The necessity of driving in reverse through the aisles in warehouses causes many people to be run over in large businesses as Ambev, maker of beer and soft drinks, has realized. With 800 forklifts in use throughout plants and warehouses all over Brazil, Ambev has resolved to curtail accidents. To achieve this, Ambev sought an innovative solution through a partnership with the Logistics Systems Center for Innovation (CISLog) of the Polytechnic School at the University of São Paulo (Poli/USP).

The product of the work was a patent owned by the company and the researchers that has already been filed with the Brazilian Industrial Property Institute (INPI). It is based on radiofrequency identification technology (RFID), used primarily to identify products and loads, and also used for badges and tollbooth equipment. They are called smart tags because they look like plastic bands that contain an electronic circuit and communicate by using an antenna or RFID receiver. The system that the researchers from USP and the company developed deactivates the gas pedal on the forklift whenever anyone is within eight meters in front of or behind the vehicle, or within two meters of either side of it. With this system, the operator is able to apply the brake before an accident occurs. The system does not activate the brake because sudden braking can make an accident even worse if the forks cause the pallets of bottles to fall on another person, for example. Whenever an employee is detected near the forklift, the system also turns a light on in the compartment and a beep alerts the operator.

Radiofrequency tags on helmets are compulsory

Léo RamosRadiofrequency tags on helmets are compulsoryLéo Ramos

Four RFID antennas are installed on the vehicle and five tags are placed in the helmets, which warehouse and factory employees are required to wear. “One of the tags is on the top of the helmet so that an employee who is bending over to pick something up off the floor can also be identified,” says João Francisco Toqueti, who at the time the system was developed was the regional manager of logistics at the Guarulhos plant in metropolitan São Paulo. Today, he is the manager of logistics for Ambev’s North region, in Fortaleza, in Ceará State. “The radio wave that the antennas emit powers the tag that sends out the location information,” explains professor Hugo Yoshizaki of CISLog at Poli/USP. “The top speed for forklifts is 16 km per hour. The average weight of a forklift is 3.5 metric tons empty, because it requires ballast to counterbalance the weight of the load to keep it from tipping over,” Yoshizaki says. “Because of this, forklift accidents are very dangerous.”

Heightened safety
Ambev does not disclose the number of people who are run over or involved in accidents at its facilities due to forklifts, but the problems are easy to explain. “While loading, the forklift is moving in reverse, and this really requires an operator with honed skills. Sometimes the forklift moves forward. There are rules, but they are not always observed, such as how to apply the emergency brake. We wanted a solution that was safe and was not solely operator-dependent,” Toqueti says. “In late 2012 I began to search for a solution in the market, and I considered RFID technology.”

LEDs light up when an employee walking nearby is detected

Léo RamosLEDs light up when an employee walking nearby is detectedLéo Ramos

The first phase of the partnership with CISLog/USP involved looking for alternatives in the global market. Some systems that were found use mainly a sound warning. In one of the most advanced, people who are on foot in the warehouse have to carry a device that makes a connection with the forklift, and a light on the vehicle’s instrument panel turns on instead of a horn being sounded. But the device needs a battery that has to be recharged periodically and some users forget to do this, and then the system fails to work properly. “We wanted something that did not require recharging batteries or warning the operator. We wanted it to deactivate something in the vehicle,” Toqueti says.

“When Toqueti sought us out, the first thing we did was to map out the problem and then find out what was being done in other parts of the world. There was nothing with passive RFID, a technology that has become inexpensive. Each tag costs just a few cents,” Yoshizaki says. “Our approach was multidisciplinary with researchers and professors and it involved three laboratories at Poli. The greatest difficulty was the electromagnetic interference encountered in calibrating the system and the mechanical part of the forklift.”

Following a successful laboratory concept test, the system was installed on two forklifts at the Guarulhos plant. After seeing that the system worked, all the forklifts began to use the system in late November 2013. “We found that there was no loss of productivity,” Toqueti says. In 2014, the system should be rolled out in other Ambev warehouses and in three years all Ambev facilities in Brazil that use forklifts will be outfitted with RFID. Ambev does not disclose the amount of the investment in this operation, but in general, the amount spent on logistics safety was R$9 million for new systems, tools, training and standardizing procedures. This resulted in a 45% drop in the number of workplace accidents that caused employees to miss work. As for the future of the system, Ambev will attempt to negotiate to have forklift manufacturers incorporate the RFID solution into the production of these vehicles. This is expected to have a great impact on workplace safety because of the patent, which will enable manufacturers all over the world to license the system and expand its use beyond Ambev.