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With U.S. labor scarce, logistics firms turn to remote forklifts

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By Joseph White

DETROIT (Reuters) - With labor shortages straining the supply chain, big U.S. logistics companies ArcBest and NFI Industries plan to deploy thousands of forklifts that can be operated remotely.

Startup Phantom Auto, which makes the remote-control forklifts, will get a double benefit from the supply chain sector's accelerating investments in automation. ArcBest and NFI said in a statement on Wednesday they will also join a $42 million investment round in Phantom.

Investment in industrial automation has surged during the pandemic, according to data from the Association for Advanced Automation.

Phantom and ArcBest have been jointly developing forklifts that can move goods around warehouses and factories by themselves or while being operated by a driver sitting miles from the job site.

The technology could allow one operator to pilot multiple forklifts in different locations, and the remote systems can also back up vehicles designed to operate autonomously.

ArcBest and Phantom said they intend to work together to sell autonomous forklifts with remote operation capability.

Phantom Auto began life focused on developing systems to remotely operate driverless robo-taxis but has shifted focus to industrial automation. Remote operation technology "decouples labor from location," said Phantom co-founder Elliot Katz. The pandemic accelerated interest in such technology by raising health concerns about working indoors, and shrinking the pool of people willing to work in warehouses and factories, he said.

ArcBest Chief Innovation Officer Michael Newcity, who will join Phantom's board, told Reuters the trucking and logistics company is talking to customers in the automotive and retail sectors about deploying forklifts using Phantom's remote operation system.

“All the customers we are talking to are growing," Newcity said. "The labor shortage that they were dealing in warehouse operations was pre-pandemic.”

Katz said NFI plans to deploy forklifts in its own operation that would be operated remotely at all times.

Phantom last year announced a partnership with French logistics company Geodis to develop remotely-operated forklifts.

(Reporting By Joe White; Editing by David Gregorio)

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