AGVs: Where the Future Lies?

Jessica Glass, Assistant Editor, with contributions by David Emanuel, Director of Business Management, Amerden

In some respects, the general definition for what AGVs can do has not changed in a long time. An AGV is commonly defined as a computer-controlled mobile robot used to move materials around a facility. Of course, the way AGVs look and what they can do has altered, but there is nothing in that standing definition which did not apply 10 years ago.

The Chicago Connection

The AGV may be the conveyor belts of the 21st Century, but its roots are solidly in the 1950s. A Chicago-area electrical whiz named Arthur “Mac” Barrett, the founder of Barrett Electronics, created an indoor vehicle that glided along a wire rather than a more conventional track. He called it the “Guide-O-Matic” driverless vehicle, and it went to market in 1954. (The term, AGV, came into favor in the 1980s.)

But, what is the biggest difference in AGV manufacturing today, versus say, five years ago? According to Director of Business Management at Amerden, David Emanuel, “Natural Navigation” has become the new addition to the list of AGV navigation technologies obtainable to meet precise AGV System transport requirements.

“Natural Navigation uses features naturally present in its surroundings, such as walls and columns, for automatically determining vehicle location. No changes to existing infrastructure (such as reflectors, magnets or inductive line for the AGV to guide on) are required. While still early in its commercialization phase, Natural Navigation has the potential to open up new applications for AGV Systems,” said Emanuel.

AGVs have the potential to bring new opportunities to the market, if workers embrace them. It is important that end-users be able to validate if an AGV is user-friendly, non-intimidating and stress-free to preserve.

Fast Forward to Now

Traditionally, AGVs are employed in manufacturing systems, but, lately they’ve seen extended popularity in other industrial applications, like goods transportation in warehouses and container trans-shipment at container terminals.

Emanuel explained: “[AGVs bring] improved inventory accuracy and reduced product and infrastructure damage: In manufacturing and warehousing, many of the inventory errors are a result of human mistakes. People get tired and become distracted and sloppy at times. AGVs are not subject to these conditions. AGV systems don’t get tired, and they don’t need breaks. In addition, if programmed correctly, AGVs do not make mistakes.” He also added that AGVS allow for open areas and do not block conveyors.

Different Types of AGVs

Fork-Style AGV

The most common AGVs are the fork truck models. Forklift vehicles are designed to substitute manually driven forklift trucks and pallet hand trucks. The vehicle is able to move an assortment of items, including pallets and skidded items with numerous load weights. Fork-style AGVs are used in many different industries, including aerospace/defense, automotive, textiles, ceramics, chemical processing, food/beverage, newsprint/publishing, microelectronics, plastics, primary metals and recycling.

Tugger/Tow/Unit Load Transport AGC

Cost-effective automatic guided carts (AGC) are driverless, programmable, precise, light-duty vehicles that convey materials through chosen pickup and delivery procedures within a facility. These vehicles use magnetic tape, optical or other systems for direction and employ many types of accident-avoidance systems.

Assembly Line, Unit Load Transport AGV

Assembly vehicles have a low profile for enhanced ergonomics and are designed to act as the assembly production line for the construction of several components and products.

Conveyor-Style AGV

Conveyor-style vehicles come in many sizes and load capacities, which permits the conveyer AGV to pick up and deliver different types of materials, like pallets, drums, skidded items, totes and boxes. They take these from standard conveyor lines, palletizing cells and finished good lines, then transport to stretch wrappers, unload stations, shipping or warehousing.

Roll-Handling Fork Spreader AGV

Roll-handler vehicles can be used to handle all kinds of rolled items. Some vehicles may include features such as adjustable-width roll forks or lift decks; and they handle various load weights.

Do AGVs Hurt or Help Employees?

Probably the most-asked question concerning AGV use is this: Are AGVs beneficial to employees, as well as businesses?

“Well,” Emanuel opined, “for many employees, AGV systems can improve the quality of their work environment. AGV systems are very safe to work in close proximities. Because of their reliable operation, employees can depend of the AGV system transporting the correct material at the correct time. Productivity is not wasted waiting on material or remediating transport or inventory errors. In addition, in a tight labor market, an AGV system frees up employees to work in more interesting, hopefully higher paying, job assignments.”

AGVs also have the potential to reduce labor requirements. Warehouses may try to double their workforce in anticipation of the influx of orders during peak seasons, meaning they’ll hire nearly anyone who walks through the door for a position. This can cause problems down the line, as there’s often not enough effort placed on vetting and training seasonal staff, which creates issues and blockages when it comes time to fill the orders. It can also be problematic to even find these candidates, due to competition for seasonal staff from neighboring facilities. Companies like Amazon will hire upwards of 120,000 employees in a peak season.

According to  Derek Rickard, ‎Distribution Systems Sales Manager, ‎Cimcorp, in a July 2018 article for WMHS: “With a scalable, automated solution, warehouses can minimize their amount of required seasonal labor and leverage their automated systems to get through difficult peaks. By design, these systems can work faster and longer than warehouse staff, with checks and balances done through integrated software—thereby ensuring order accuracy.”

Their use also frees up money for increasing employee salaries during those all-important peak times, instead of hiring for temporary positions.  “The need to double the warehouse workforce during peak periods adds major expenses, given the wages, benefits and financial obligations for each additional employee. Plus, some warehouses will pay extra for staff to work overtime just to keep operations flowing. Others will add an overnight shift, so they end up paying around the clock.”

Emanuel touched on how, automation also benefits warehouse employees by aiding in the completion of tasks with greater ease, thus improving overall working conditions. Companies with have the ability to reallocate their staff to handle products that are not suitable for automation and/or have special handling requirements. This also improves the employee’s safety by decreasing the amount of strenuous activity required during work hours.

“Utilizing an automatic guided vehicle systems enhances workplace safety in a variety of ways,” said Emanuel. “First, they can perform tasks that would normally be considered dangerous for humans. Second, they operate in a smooth, controlled manner, which means fewer risks of human-operated vehicles injuring other employees. Third, they include sensor technologies that are always operational and can automatically stop an AGV, should it detect a human or other object in its travel path. Enhanced workplace safety can also decrease costs, including insurance rates and OSHA penalties.”

To conclude, AGVs are not eliminating jobs as the common fear among warehouse staff suggests. In actuality, it is making those jobs easier, which can be an attractive perk for young jobseekers. The history of AGVs is rich and full of advancements that will take warehousing into the future, continuing to make transporting goods easier and faster than ever before. WMHS