Automated Guided Vehicles on the Road to Manufacturing 4.0

By Anonymous User posted 08-11-2020 15:45


By Carlos Pinheiro Guimaraes and Steve Garbrecht

In the wake of the COVID-19 crisis, manufacturers can expect to see greater numbers of automated guided vehicles (AGVs) moving around their plants. AGVs make plants a safer place because they make social distancing easier. For example, someone could walk near an autonomous forklift without risk of being infecting with a virus. Even in huge industrial buildings—like factories and warehouses—workers’ paths cross frequently in the course of their jobs. AGVs also help to keep the logistical side of the operation continuously running when employees couldn’t safely be at work.
These robotic machines supplement humans in hazardous operations, executing repetitive tasks, managing round-the-clock shifts, automating part of the material flow, and transporting parts and finished goods.

AGVs move and haul materials around the factory floor—and out the factory door—on their own accord. They often act as autonomous or “self-driving” forklifts, for example.

Also referred to as laser-guided vehicles, AGVs are, as the name implies, autonomous robotic machines capable of navigating and moving by themselves. Instead of a driver, they rely on GPS signals, radio waves, cameras, lasers as well as wires laid out across the plant floor to guide them.

In recent years, manufacturers of all kinds have been looking to incorporate AGVs into their operations. Their popularity is on an upward trajectory as they’ve become increasingly accessible. Also, manufacturers now understand the business value AGVs can bring. They know that the self-propelled machines are growing more and more sophisticated in ways that can give their organizations a competitive edge.

AGVs execute on a complex system of logistics, quickly moving materials across long distances while being flexible enough to swiftly accommodate changes to the production schedule. Other bonuses: they keep people out of harm's way and help avoid costly accidents, like a collision between two forklifts whose drivers may unknowingly be heading down intersecting paths. They also protect workers from having to haul and deal with chemicals or hazardous materials. They work around the clock. Unlike their human counterparts, they maneuver through dark warehouses with ease, saving lighting costs.

Even as they perform their duties, AGVs are also continually collecting valuable logistical information that can be tapped to produce insights, reduce uncertainty, and support decisions that can streamline operations and boost profits.

The Wrench in the Plan

For most manufacturers, the increased size of their AGV fleet comes with increased challenges. Here are the three biggest concerns you may face if you’re considering adopting AGVs:

How Much Help?

To reframe the question: How will an AGV fleet help your operation? Before you consider AGV adoption, you’ll want to quantify the increased safety and production gains you hope to see. You can’t exchange a forklift driver for a self-guided vehicle without knowing what the trade will entail and how much it will cost.

AGVs are a sizeable capital expense. After implementation, you’ll need a way to measure and monitor improvements to your operation. That data will also guide you should you need to make adjustments and changes to AGV fleet operations.

More Monitoring

An AGV is a system, the same as your conveyor belts, welding robots and everything else in your production environment. These tools are used in service of manufacturing and production goals. You’ll need to track, manage and maintain AGVs the same way you do other manufacturing equipment.

When you bring in AGVs, you’re bringing in more machinery to monitor. That should be a consideration. But also look to those new streams of data to help you make sense of logistics, movement and production in ways that just weren’t possible before. Manufacturing equipment has gone digital, capturing and passing on data about itself and its surroundings. All those machines are now connected—communicating and exchanging information with one another and with the operations technology systems that oversee company operations; usually a combination of e.g. manufacturing execution systems (MES) and enterprise resource planning (ERP) systems. This is valuable data. Don’t merely eavesdrop on it. Analyze it and act upon it.

Integration Issues

The numbers are in. A fleet of AGVs would benefit your company by optimizing your operations. Now you just need to integrate those AGVs with all your existing systems. In order for AGVs to be able to “speak” with each other, with other software systems—including those increasingly complex ones that reside at the edge—and with your ERP system, you’ll be undertaking a large systems integration effort.

Another consideration: the proliferation of AGV vendors who are creating highly specialized machines. You may use one vendor’s AGV to transfer bulk materials, such as powdered chemicals, while another type of AGV brings parts to restock bins. A third vendor may supply the AGVs you use to move pallets around in a dark warehouse.

Each of these vendors has its own on-board analytics and proprietary fleet management systems.  Each has its own language, communication protocols, and peculiarities. Their inability to work with other manufacturing software will produce a growing problem if you don’t develop a solution and put it into place. You’ll need to integrate the different AGVs with each other, then separately integrate each type with your ERP system, and on and on.

A Partner can Help

This is an area where Hitachi Vantara is a pioneer, working together with JR Automation, an advanced system integration company for robotics and industrial automation in the Hitachi Group, and SAP®, a leading ERP software company. Hitachi Vantara and SAP are currently co-creating solutions to help SAP customers to manage complex and heterogeneous fleets of AGVs.

AGV’s and all related manufacturing technology are growing increasingly sophisticated and can help give organizations like yours a competitive edge. Don’t miss out. Contact Hitachi Vantara and talk to a consultant today.

1 comment



05-04-2022 14:34