“Television will play a leading part in the future of material handling. At the Babcock & Wilcox Company at Lynchburg, Va., there is a three-ton fork lift truck that sees, listens and does what it is told. Its eyes are television cameras. Its ears are an electronic control system which translates ultrasonic signals into corresponding mechanical actions. The truck’s television cameras, like the human eye, change focus from distant to near to send sharp pictures back to the receiver.”
Welcome to 1960. This was the opening paragraph of "TV: Its Role in Tomorrow's Handling," a story run in that year’s May edition of Material Handling Engineering, MH&L’s grandfather. In poring through a leather-bound collection of old MHEs from that year, this was one of several articles that caught my eye. They all had one thing in common: the desire to spark the reader’s imagination and inspire them to envision how such technology could be practically applied in their own environment.
The editor at that time, Edward Leighten, took pains to convince his audience this wasn’t science fiction.
“A mere dozen years ago, the plans for industrial TV as discussed here would have been called, in kindly tones perhaps, unrealistic. But look back just seven years—to July, 1953—when a magazine called Flow first printed a feature article contemplating future material handling uses for ITV. Those futuristic ideas are commonplace today.”
But even 53 years ago, safety didn’t take a back seat to technology’s sizzle, and the readers of MHE were reminded of their role in safety as they applied their engineering skills to technology. The December issue had an article titled “Think Safety when you Talk Handling,” and the writer—J. Wellington Hall, supervisor of traffic at Westinghouse Electric Corp.—told his readers they were part of an important trend.
“Management is recognizing more often that it gets most efficient handling—and safety—by calling in material handling men early when setting up new production lines and laying out new plants. Once plant layouts are frozen and production methods are set it’s difficult to change the material handling. … Material handling men want to stop using the worker as a beast of burden. They want man to master the machine, not substitute for it. That way we eliminate a major cause of accidents.”
Today we have automated guided vehicles that can be programmed to move anywhere in a work environment, so we’ve conquered fears of inflexibility where technology is concerned. But safety is still—and will always be—a concern as long as people are working in the same environment with automated material handlers.
Although we’ve come a long way from 1960’s vision of industrial TV to today’s use of onboard 3D sensors, people are as ingenious about finding ways to get injured as manufacturers are about countering those ways. Westinghouse’s J. Wellington Hall said in 1960 that industry gets its most efficient handling—and safety—by calling in material handling men. Let's pay tribute to 21st century material handling and add women to Hall's observation.
Both men and women can play an important role in developing vehicles that can perform a much broader range of operations and to sense and seamlessly adapt to changing working conditions. This blog post is a shout out to you and to system integrators and installers to help the industry determine how well robots and vehicles perform in today’s changing environments and to “drive” the AGV industry towards the future.
According to a roadmap produced by industry and academia on Robotics: “Not only will there be greater opportunities within the logistics domain, but smart mobile vehicles or AGVs will become usable by a broad range of manufacturers, including small and medium enterprises that can’t currently take advantage of such vehicles. As the AGVs gain in ease of programming, adaptability, maneuverability, and safety, they can be integrated into smaller and less-structured environments to become utility players. They could carry pallets of stock and finished parts, empty out chip-collection bins, and perform other transport tasks on the shop floor."
Spurred by the Robotics Roadmap and several high-level reports emphasizing the importance of developing advanced robotics capabilities, research programs are ramping up in the U.S. A workshop just held in October on robotics for manufacturing and automation will produce a report describing use cases and technology gaps identified by industry participants. These findings will inform the proposal-writing for the next round of funding under the National Robotics Initiative.
If you didn't get a chance to have your say, here's your opportunity. Just answer this question:
What are the constraints of your environment that AGV manufacturers need to address? Is it navigating around obstacles? Sharing the workplace with employees? The accuracy and repeatability required for trailer loading and unloading?
Let’s make a wish list. Tell me what features would make AGVs more applicable to the tasks in your environment. We’ll collect these and share them with the researchers so they can fit them into their development efforts and report back on their feasibility. E-mail your thoughts to me at [email protected]. Let’s continue that tradition of better industrial living through material handling engineering.
 “A Roadmap for US Robotics: From Internet to Robotics (V2),” CCC and CRA (NSF-funded), 2013, www.robotics-vo.us.