Chain of Thought

Revolutionary vs. Radical Change in Industrial Trucks

How many times have you been stuck in traffic and, to avoid rear-ending someone, you try to maintain enough space between your front bumper and his rear—only to have someone cut in front of you, almost causing what you were trying to avoid?

Maybe when cars are automated opportunists like that will go away. But don’t hold your breath for synchronized traffic—unless that traffic happens to be in your plant or distribution center. It may soon be, thanks to Christopher Murphy, vice president of software and control engineering at Jervis B. Webb Company--a subsidiary of Daifuku Webb Holding Company. He just earned a U.S. patent as sole inventor of an Automated Guided Vehicle (AGV) system that allows for synchronized travel.

In such a system, AGVs travel at an equal distance continuously along a line or path. The company says this continuous motion will allow AGVs to be used in assembly operations, replacing traditional conveyor systems.  This means assembly lines could be quickly installed and modified to meet changing production needs.  Also, vehicles could be added or taken away to size the line up or down to meet production needs.

I asked Roger Bostelman what he thought of this news. He’s engineering project manager at the Intelligent Systems Division of the National Institute of Standards and Technology, and has been working with the AGV industry to establish performance standards for these vehicles. He says he’s impressed.

“This means AGVs could remain lighter, more flexible sub-movers,” he said. “We've been working with a current AGV controller to add new functionality (obstacle detection and avoidance) towards future unstructured facility navigation.  We feel that any addition or modification to current systems is perhaps low hanging fruit for the AGV industry to pick up and use now.”

It's great that AGV and forklift OEMs are still looking for innovative ways to improve their customers' lives. These vehicles have been around for decades and new features appear on the market at a more evolutionary than revolutionary pace. Some of the best ideas come directly from end users. That can be a problem if these users try to take the revolutionary into their own hands, without involving OEMs or their dealers. Some recent end-user innovations have involved variations of synchronization--like lifting in unison, which is an industry-recognized skill. The problem can come when revolutionary turns radical, as when an operator uses his forklift to lift another operator in a forklift to accomplish some task--like truck loading without a dock.

We put together a video gallery depicting examples of both--not to encourage such revolution, but to alert companies to the risky material handling experimentation that might be going on under their own roofs. You can go there from HERE.

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