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Chain of Thought

An Early Start on Your Dream AGV

Our Halloween-week visit to the vaults containing ghosts from material handling automation’s past was enough to shake people up about where the industry still needs to go. Our last blog highlighted a 1960s-era automated guided vehicle that relied on TV cameras for its eyes. AGVs have certainly come a long way in 53 years, but the human spirit is always looking for ways to improve. We ended that blog with an invitation for readers to help guide the AGV’s continuing evolution by identifying technology gaps manufacturers still need to address in their R&D efforts. You didn’t disappoint.

We’re still early in the collection process, but AGV manufacturers like Creform Corp. and Wynright Corp. were quick to share our blog with customers to get an early read on capabilities that are high on their wish lists. Here’s what they’ve come up with so far:

  • A less costly means of vehicle guidance without a physical guidepath.  “Doing this well is challenging in an ever changing manufacturing environment but if you can accomplish this cost effectively, you’d have a popular solution,” this reader suggested.
  • Lighter weight, quicker recharging and longer life batteries.
  • The ability to read error codes remotely when troubleshooting, like they do with cars—where an offsite technician can call into the vehicle when it’s down to try to diagnose a problem over the phone. 
  • Better fault recovery information, with the ability for an AGV to diagnose itself so floor level associates can get it going again.
  • High and low speed options—operating at normal speeds most of the time but with the ability to shift to a high speed for long distance transport or in an area where people don’t work. This might reduce the number of AGVs required, making the technology more affordable.
  • The ability to manually drive an AGV off the guidepath, potentially using an iPad via Wi-Fi connection.
  • Enable an AGV’s traffic management system to interface with a plant’s operating system so they work together.  This would make AGV design projects less complicated.
  • Features that enhance safety and affordability to make AGVs easier to justify.

Creform has focused on creating automated tuggers and drive units that guide carts along a magnetic tape guidepath. Wynright has been concentrating its efforts on solving the issue of automating “the last mile” in material handling – the loading dock – and using innovations such as 3D vision technology to address the variables encountered when loading or unloading a truck. These factors include item size, shape and how products are stacked in a trailer or sea container. This OEM has developed a way for AGVs to make intelligent decisions about the best way to take products off a stack and place them on a conveyor.

The 3D vision technology involved here is the same type used in video games such as Xbox Kinect. When the AGV approaches a wall of cartons it scans the façade in three dimensions and then uses an algorithm to determine the best way to grip and move the carton onto a conveyor, where it can be introduced into the rest of the material handling system.

I shared some of this information with Roger Bostelman, a member of MH&L’s editorial advisory board and engineering project manager with the Intellegent Systems Division of the National Institute of Standards and Technology, and he was impressed by what the material handling industry has already accomplished.

“I like to see alternative approaches like individual box picking, especially when pallets aren’t an option,” he said. “It also takes away some of the load-shift-during-transport issues. I suppose the gripper and robot size could vary with box sizes. It’s a confined area with walls and as long as the door is blocked from human entrance, safety shouldn’t be an issue.”

He was also happy to see 3D technology being applied—a topic Bostelman addressed in an article he wrote for MH&L.

“We’ve discussed with manufacturers the usefulness of 3D imaging for years,” he added, “although, I haven’t heard of AGVs unloading trucks that are randomly packed with shifted-loads-due-to-transport.” 

Bostelman studied the AGV truck-loading problem for an AGV manufacturer several years ago and his team developed a generic solution for verifying remaining truck volumes for load placement on the truck, as well as detecting open/closed truck doors, and measuring truck skew from the loading dock.  All of these tasks were performed using 2D laser scanners back when 3D imaging was not an option, so it looks like the industry has already built upon that foundation.

Keep sending me items from your AGV wish list at [email protected] At the scary speed technology develops, I wouldn’t be surprised if your wishes come true in only a few more Halloweens from now.

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