Chain of Thought

AGVs follow paths undreamed of by inventor

In the 1950s, forklifts were nifty material handling machines. An automatic guided vehicle? To most, it was as much science fiction as Godzilla. But to one person, AGVs were a gleam in his eye. He turned that gleam into reality in 1954 when he invented the world's first one.

I'm talking about Arthur "Mac" Barrett. Until yesterday, I had never heard of him. That changed when Dematic's Ken Ruehrdanz informed me that Mr. Barrett passed away on August 17th. Ken wanted me to let you know. You may never have heard of Mr. Barrett either, but his invention has made a major contribution to the field of material handling. For that alone he deserves recognition.

But Ken will always remember Barrett more for another first. Ken's first job out of college was working for Barrett's AGVS company called Barrett Electronics. That's where this young graduate learned how the first AGVs tracked a signal in a wire mounted on the ceilings of factories and warehouses. These weren't called AGVs in those days. Barrett called them “Driverless Vehicles.” The Barrett brand was “Guide-O-Matic.” Sounds very 50s, doesn't it?

Well, eventually those wires were installed in a slot in the floor. However, if it weren't for Mr. Barrett, who knows what path today's AGVs would have followed into existence?

Coincidental with Mr. Barrett's passing, the Material Handling Industry of America's AGV Industry Group released its Fall 2010 Quarterly Report. It gives a nice summary of how today's AGVs work and in what applications. There are a couple work sites I'll bet Mr. Barrett was proud to have influenced.

He probably never imagined his invention would wind up in a hospital… as a worker…on a team of 43. These AGVs work in an 11-story, 1,000-bed hospital carrying carts of meal trays, medical/surgical supplies, linens, trash/waste, pharmaceuticals, and other general housekeeping items. Loads can weigh as much as 1,000 pounds.

The report also talks about the AGV's younger cousin, the AGC—the automatic guided cart. A lawn tractor manufacturer used a system of 76 AGCs to merge three production lines into one common platform line. These AGCs have hydraulic lifts, allowing operators to adjust the cart height for improved ergonomics during the assembly process.

In the 50s people knew as much about ergonomics as they did about AGVs. Today AGVs and AGCs are saving people's aching backs and are even contributing to saving their lives. That's quite an evolutionary path for any technology.

For this path, Mr. Barrett, we salute you.

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