AGVs: Flexible solutions to fit into any site

Finding an automation system that allows for growth and change can enable long-term savings and production increases. Manufacturers’ Monthly reports.

For companies seeking to reap the benefits of an automated production lines one stumbling block has been the inflexibility of a system once installed. Whether that is in the path that the process follows or the fixed site of key components, once the investment has been made and the technology installed, it has been hard to adapt to changes in throughput or alterations to established workflows.

Dematic, a global provider of intelligent logistics and material handling solutions, known for its automated storage and retrieval systems (AS/RS), has seen this issue of the inflexibility of automating facing those companies that it supplies.

“The big challenge in recent years for companies that are looking into automation for the productivity and the capacity gains is that certain automation products like pallet conveyors were seen as limiting flexibility,” said Tony Raggio, general manager for Dematic’s mobile automation division in Australia and New Zealand.

With the development of autonomous robotic systems in 1980s, however, Dematic globally saw a way around the inflexibility of costly automated production facilities. The solution they developed was utilising the technology of automated guided vehicles (AGVs) for transport in production and warehousing facilities.

“You could set up paths for the AGVs to travel from one pick up point to another drop off point, or within storage applications doing put away or retrieval. But if your needs change, if you have different pick up or drop off points, our customers can reorganise the paths the AGVs travel,” said Raggio.

Seeking to further develop this technology, as Dematic had been providing AGVs around the world for many years, particularly in the food and beverage and other manufacturing industries, Dematic acquired Australian AGV manufacturer NDC, who they have partnered with previously on a number of projects.

“There came a point where we saw that AGV’s are a critical part of our portfolio going forward in terms of providing flexibility and productivity gains for transport applications in warehouses as well as production lines,” said Raggio. “Dematic made a strategic decision to acquire NDC to complement our portfolio of AS/RSs and palletising lines and to also look at where else we can extend AGVs and applications within other industries.”

While AGVs were already being used to move packaged finished goods on pallets from one end of a production line and deposit it at a dispatch area, having brought NDC’s technology in house, Dematic could look to other applications such as high manual pallet racks – up to 9.5 metres high – and storing and retrieving materials from double-deep storage. Today, Dematic’s range of AGV solutions have broadened to include other applications that AGVs haven’t traditionally been able to address, including in harsh environments such as freezer systems and outdoors.

With these possibilities, Dematic has been able to install AGVs in non-logistics businesses,
such as manufacturers of durable products, aluminium smelters and steel fabrication workshops. As in production and warehousing facilities, the AGVs have been installed to
work alongside the existing human workforce. To do so, Dematic utilise safety systems which enable productive collaboration.

“You can manage the speed and avoid collisions because they do have best practice collision avoidance sensors for both for static infrastructure as well as moving components like other AGVs or forklift trucks as well as of course human operators,” said Raggio.

Dematic’s AGVs have three obstruction sensors installed on them as standard, with additional scanners installed if required. If an object enters the scanner’s horizontal sensing plane, the vehicle will slow down. Or, if an object appears in the closer protection field, the safety relay triggers an emergency stop until the object is removed.

In other instances, Raggio pointed out, AGVs have advantages above and beyond a manual material handling process.

“AGVs can work 24/7, they don’t take breaks, and they don’t need to take sick leave.”

With these safety systems installed, AGVs can provide a safe and secure option for assistance in a manual warehouse or production facility.

“Where previously a company was using forklift trucks and they’re looking to automate to reduce costs, increase reliability, and increase safety, you can readily put in AGVs into those traditional manual warehouse applications,” said Raggio. In such cases, AGVs provide a flexible solution where a full-scale automation of an existing plant is not possible or being considered.

“If a company is looking for a green field site then there is the option for AS/RS. But when you’re looking to refit and optimise a manual warehouse operation, then that’s more an application for AGVs.”

After purchasing NDC, Dematic consolidated the AGV production with its Australian manufacturing facility. This makes Dematic distinct from its competitors, highlighted Raggio.

“The biggest differentiator of Dematic in Australia is that we assemble AGVs locally, so we have a strong support base in terms of commissioning, in terms of software, and then critically the ongoing support. We have a large local base of technical engineers that can provide ongoing maintenance as well as service capabilities,” said Raggio.

These differentials are apparent from when Dematic is first brought into to provide an automation solution.

“We work with the customer to understand their business, network requirements, constraints, and growth projections. Then, we provide them with a solution design and work through that with the customer.”

The key attraction of AGVs in the first place is their flexibility, something that Dematic has in mind from the initial consultation. Hence, Dematic and the customer are able to provide and plan for future changes in their AGVs’ application.

“Once a system is live, Dematic offers the full suite of service and support capabilities depending on the customer’s requirements. If there’s any issue with the customer’s AGVs, we have technicians all across Australia and New Zealand. This can include residential technicians on site, ongoing maintenance, and service support, and any upgrade services as well, as required,” said Raggio.