Six Things You Must Know Before Automating Long-Haul Towing

By Rob Sullivan, Contributor

When a facility is nearly a million square feet, transporting hundreds of thousands of pounds of finished goods to a warehouse three quarters of a mile away is a long haul. That was the recent challenge for a global manufacturer of outdoor power tools as it looked to streamline operations with a new onsite distribution center.

Hauling material over long distances can be a highly repetitive and potentially dangerous task. The manufacturer estimated it would need to triple the size of its forklift fleet and hire several new operators to transport the finished goods each day. After looking into options, the team decided an autonomous tugging solution would eliminate the need for additional forklifts and headcount, and even enable after-hours material transport.

The team needed a solution that could deploy quickly—as soon as the new warehouse was complete—and adapt to frequent route changes prompted by dynamic production schedules. The team chose high-capacity autonomous mobile robot (AMR) tuggers, transporting four trains of trailers from point to point, to automate time-consuming tows and minimize trips. The advantages of AMRs are that they navigate autonomously along pre-determined paths using built-in LiDAR sensors and environment mapping technology to map the facility in real-time, eliminating the need for floor tape, wires, magnets or other cumbersome facility infrastructure.

The autonomous solution netted the company a far more efficient operation. For every trip, AMR fleet control software identifies the most efficient route to the warehouse racks. Each AMR tugger transports up to eight pallets—and 10,000 pounds—of finished goods in a single trip. Total miles traveled each day is 30-40, compared to the 200+ miles required for manual forklifts to transport the same payload 1,000 pounds at a time.

The facility has already purchased two more AMR tuggers and is on track for an ROI in less than two years. But not all AMRs tuggers provide the same benefits, especially for long-haul towing. As you’re evaluating AMR solutions for your operation, ask your vendor these six questions:

  1. As my needs change, can your solution adapt?

The most efficient—and advanced—AMRs are designed with flexibility in mind. An architecture based on a standard base AMR with modules or adapters that transform the base unit into a pallet stacker, tugger, etc., maximizes your investment. When your requirements change, the adapters can be changed, and the robot can be re-purposed for a new task. A well-designed AMR is easily extendable and changeable, without the need to modify the facility.

  1. Are they safe?

According to the National Safety Council, almost 35,000 people per year suffer severe injuries in forklift-related incidents and 90% of all forklifts in the United States will be in an accident during their useful life. AMR tuggers reduce accidents for several reasons. In a manned forklift, a driver’s view is obstructed as he navigates around warehouse racks and people. With an AMR, sensors and scanners detect objects and personnel in their path and react accordingly, dramatically reducing the risk of accidents. Another example is, in the power tool manufacturer’s facility, AMR travel was reduced by 80% as compared to manned forklifts. Fewer vehicles on the floor interacting with other equipment and people naturally lowers the likelihood of accidents.

But how do you know the AMR is safe? Ask the vendor which safety standards they follow. There are currently two main standards manufacturers look to as they design their robots—ANSI B56.5 (US) and EN1525 (EU). Additional standards are being developed specific to AMRs, including ISO 369104 published in 2020 and ANSI/RIA R15.08, which is still being finalized.

  1. How quickly can your robots be deployed?

Deployment times should typically take weeks, not months. For this manufacturer, it took two people approximately two weeks to deploy the AMR tugger solution, including mapping the entire environment, teaching the AMRs all the routes and optimizing the system. When routes are reconfigured in response to production changes, there’s no need to reteach the entire facility, just the areas added or changed.

  1. What kind of batteries do the AMRs use and how easy are they to charge?

AMRs use stored energy batteries, typically lead acid or lithium ion, which need to be charged. A well-designed AMR system will include in-mission/opportunity charging capabilities. This means that in-floor charging plates are installed in places where the AMR makes stops during its workflow. For example, at the power tool manufacturer, when the AMR tugger arrives at the warehouse, it parks on a charging pad while manual forklift operators unload finished goods. With opportunity charging, the AMRs don’t have to be taken out of commission to charge, enabling them to run continuously.

  1. Can they easily integrate with existing environments and other automation applications?

To be most effective, the AMR’s fleet control software should manage the AMR tuggers orders and missions and coordinate their activities to minimize empty travel. In addition to optimizing routing and traffic so congestion is limited, the software should be able to integrate with existing warehouse management systems (WMS), delivering an integrated solution that simplifies operations.

  1. Are the robots designed as an AMR or are they converted from manually operated vehicles?

Bolting automation kits onto existing, manually operated machines is not efficient. A purpose-built AMR actually speeds delivery, service and ROI across every stop of the autonomous operation because each component—from motor, wheels, control systems, sensors, safety system and central computer—is engineered to work together as a high-performance material transport robot.

Finding the right AMR solution to drive your long-haul towing needs can improve efficiency and safety, free human workers for higher-value tasks and positively impact your operation’s profitability. Regardless of how much material you’re hauling each day, you want a flexible solution you can easily and cost-effectively adapt to meet your business needs for years to come. WMHS

Rob Sullivan is the president and CEO of AutoGuide, a manufacturer of high-payload autonomous mobile robots (AMRs) for material transport for warehouses, manufacturing and e-commerce distribution centers. More information can be found at www.agmobilerobots.com.