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07 Apr, 2022 / BY Neil Sharp

Keeping the warehouse moving: automated guided vehicles

Automated-guided-vehicles

American inventor Joseph Engelberger is considered the father of robotics. He revolutionised manufacturing with his 1954 mechanical arm design, which led to the Unimate: the world’s first warehouse robotic arm for factory automation. It transported die castings from the assembly line and welded the parts onto auto bodies. Humans doing the same job could easily lose a limb or be poisoned if not careful—robots made factories safer.

Although the first warehouse robots were large robotic arms, today’s factories use multiple mechanical systems, including Automated Storage and Retrieval Systems (AS/RS), aerial drones, and Autonomous Mobile Robots (AMRs). This blog will look at Automated Guided Vehicles.

What are automated guided vehicles?

They are known by various names: automated guided vehicles (AGVs), automatic guided vehicles, autonomous mobile robots (AMRs), or automated guided carts (AGCs). But they essentially do the same thing: move inventory around the warehouse. Typically these portable robots move across the factory floor on a track or magnetic strip using a specific type of technology, including vision cameras and radio waves. They are commonly used to transport heavy products and materials.

AGVs are programmed with a map of the warehouse and the locations of all the inventory. They can also tow objects in trailers, which they can attach automatically. The robots are employed in nearly all types of manufacturing warehouses, and AGV technology has become ever more refined over the past few years. Today’s most sophisticated iterations are laser-guided vehicles (LGV): a subsection of AGV. 

These use a laser positioning system and are programmed to communicate with other robots to ensure products are moved smoothly around the warehouse for either shipping or storing. Automatic Forklift trucks are an example of an AGV that uses laser navigation for warehouse and stocking applications requiring accurate positioning tolerance.

Applications of automated guided vehicles

Automated guided vehicle systems are often used to transport raw materials—both to the warehouse and to the production line. They can be used from the beginning to the end of manufacturing processes. Here are the five main uses of AGVs.

Moving goods-in-process

Moving goods-in-process involves AGVs transporting materials from the warehouse to the production line or from one process to another manufacturing process. 

Moving pallets

Repetitively moving pallets is very common in manufacturing warehouses. AGVs can move pallets from the palletiser to stretch wrapping to the warehouse or to the outbound shipping docks.

Transporting finished products

Transporting finished goods from the warehouse to storage or shipping is a delicate process as care has to be taken not to damage them. As AGVs are robots that have precisely controlled guidance systems and acceleration control, there is less chance of products being damaged than if they were guided by a human hand. They are excellent tools for this task.

Loading trailers

Using AGVs to load trailers is becoming increasingly popular. They are used to load pallets containing finished products into trailers without the need for any special dock equipment. A specified loading pattern can be programmed, and to ensure there is no damage, some use Natural Targeting technology to see the trailer’s walls.

Container handling

In port container terminals that have automated-guideway vehicle and automated stacking crane technology, AGVs are used to move sea containers. This makes the operation more reliable and is also more environmentally friendly as the latest AGVs are powered by batteries. This reduces emissions and lowers the cost of fuelling, which previously used diesel. 

What are the advantages of Automated Guided Vehicles?

The modern factory uses IoT technology to integrate, automate, optimise, and manage information and goods inside the factory. AGVs are an essential part of intralogistics as they seamlessly move materials and products around the factory, which means that humans do not have to. There are many benefits of this, including the following.

Reduced product damage

The majority of damage to materials and products happens as a result of human-related mishaps and accidental product touches. As automated guided vehicle systems are equipped with highly sensitive safety devices and follow pre-programmed routes, the number of product touches and, therefore, damages are reduced. 

Increased logistical flexibility and efficiency

In comparison to humans transporting materials manually, warehouse robots follow pre-established tracks that can be customised and optimised. As this makes transportation and storage processes more efficient, warehouse capacity can be increased. 

Some automated guided vehicles can be used as stacker cranes, and others can even be used in existing racking warehouses. This means that the AGVs can change between different aisles, and there is more flexibility in the logistics of the factory. Product movement can also be automated and preplanned, making operations smoother.

Reduced labour costs

As AGVs are driverless, there is no concern about extra labour costs when production increases. No time restrictions on when robots can work means that factories can run around the clock. Moreover, there is no increase in price when AGVs operate at night and at weekends, which improves warehouse output and cuts costs. Unlike humans who have to sleep and take holidays, some AGVs only require eight minutes to recharge, meaning they are only out of operation for very short periods.

Robots create a human-centred approach to manufacturing

Factories that use robot technology need a more specialised human workforce involved in robotic programming rather than manual tasks. They are part of a paradigm shift towards Industry 5.0 and sustainable manufacturing, a human-centred approach to the production process. Using this method, manufacturers can identify what technology can do for workers and address how technology can adapt to their needs rather than the other way around.

Improved health and safety

The first warehouse robots prevented workers’ arms from getting ripped off, and today’s AGVs are also designed with safety in mind. For example, AGVs can operate in dangerous settings, including places where there are hazardous materials or spaces that are excessively hot or cold. 

Human-operated equipment relies on humans to make it safe, whereas AGVs have built-in safety features that cannot be compromised. Humans can be easily distracted or tired, but there are no such dangers with AGVs.

Moreover, the tracks on which AGVs run do not cross operator pathways, so there is no danger of workers being run over by a forklift truck, for example. Lastly, as warehouse robots can be controlled using wearables, there is a reduced possibility of human error when operating material handling systems.

Increased scalability

Manufacturers can scale with human-driven vehicles and increased physical work, but this does not provide a competitive advantage. AGVs are much more scalable as it is easy and cost-effective to expand the fleet as customer demand grows. Also, companies can increase production by adding additional AGVs without doing any physical work.

Additional benefits of automated guided vehicles

  • Flexible use of space
  • Low investment and operating costs
  • Easy integration and low IT infrastructure requirements
  • Improvement in ergonomics and optimal material flows
  • Networking of different warehouse and work areas over long distances
  • Can be used even in hazardous environments (freezer storage or danger areas)
  • Innovative energy concept (automatic and fast loading operations)
  • Mixed traffic with AGVs and people in production and logistics is possible
  • Sustainable reduction of cycle times

Conclusion

Manufacturing is surging towards smart supply chains and intelligent factories—essential to continue meeting growing customer expectations. Robots have been used in production for the past 70 years and have made factories more efficient. Automated guided vehicles reduce costs, lead to fewer accidents in factories, and decrease product damage—everyone benefits.

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