Industry Focus: Putting autonomous technology in the driver’s seat

Productivity and safety are two key targets for manufacturers seeking a high return on investment in new technology. Steven Impey investigates the role driverless vehicles are playing on the factory floor.


For those who follow the developments and politics of autonomous science, they will know that it hasn’t been a completely smooth ride – with scenarios around where accountability would fall for road-related deaths and everyday insurance claims still to consider.

Meanwhile, artificial intelligence of this kind is already being used widely within the manufacturing and resource sectors that link Australia’s economies and industrial fortitude.

In factories across the world, autonomous guided vehicles (AGVs) have been entrusted ever since the 1950s, when primitive yet innovative operations followed wires in the ground and were designed to require minimal human intervention.

With the dawn of the fourth industrial revolution (Industry 4.0) and the drive for smarter technologies that can enhance speed, efficiency and safety within the workplace, some companies are already taking the next step.

Links to mining

Laser technology is changing the mining industry right across the supply chain.

Whether it involves transporter trucks on the dirt, underground excavating vehicles, or even freight trains, autonomous technology now enables machines to visualise and map their own surroundings and, essentially, make independent decisions without the help of a human hand.

Sean Carter, product manager for Sick Australia, is abetting the introduction of industry innovation including laser-guided systems in the manufacturing sector.

While mining is leading the charge for truly autonomous vehicles, he said the future of manufacturing will benefit significantly by turning manual labour into digital dynamism.

“On a daily basis, I see a lot of companies – especially in the resources sector – which are being challenged by low commodity prices that have recovered somewhat but are still not at the top levels they were a few years ago.

“There is pressure these days for companies to automate as much as possible and that increasingly includes automated vehicles.

autonomous2“Autonomous vehicles of course won’t get tired like human drivers do, which often leads to mistakes. So, we are seeing a greater drive towards automation in this area; vehicles that can operate 24 hours a day, seven days a week.”

There are some operations that do require a deft, human touch – however, for the most part, Carter insists autonomous vehicles will complete an operation faster and cleaner on its own than it would under human control.

At Sick, they are testing the use of LiDAR sensors (radar technology that uses laser detection rather than radio waves) in its autonomous vehicles, which seize the area in front of the sensor to map the environment around it.

“With that mapping technology, engineers are able to create guidance algorithms and all sorts of smart technology that can guide vehicles and help them operate autonomously,” Carter continued.

“AGVs in logistics companies, such as autonomous forklifts, tend to use
a variation of the LiDAR sensor, but they are automated for the very same reasons: speed, efficiency and safety.”

Supporting the workforce

As with any kind of automation, the question that still stings is the one of worker longevity and whether a machine, which may be able to do a human job better and more quickly, will deny people a place at the table.

While traditional manufacturers are seeking ways to implement automated technology, replacing forklift drivers and low-value material roles is seen as an opportunity to improve the productivity of an existing workforce.

“There is a lot of fear that robots and technology will usurp jobs, taking roles away from traditional workers,” Carter added. “However, the evidence seems to suggest that those workers can be deployed into other areas where they offer more benefit and add more value to the company.”

According to the team at the industry consultant Wiley, AGVs are gaining traction across the manufacturing sector – albeit wholesale adoption is still some distance away.

The return on investment in an autonomous system is generally robust, according to Brett Wiskar, Wiley’s R&D and innovations director.

He explained that one way to assess this is to determine the cost of handling per item by simply looking at the labour, packaging and ongoing warehouse costs autonomous solutions could potentially diminish.

“Automated systems manufacturers are able to determine accurately their systems’ capacity and price per unit for handling,” he said. “This means the business case and breakeven-point are easily determined.

“It’s the larger more sophisticated operators who seem to understand the business case and the returns provided through these automated solutions.

“Smaller players are starting to move in this direction but it’s the more economically astute businesses who able spot the returns, which are clearly there but are less obvious in a smaller operation.”

Increased quality control through reduced product losses and the need for less space on the factory floor are some of the benefits introducing an autonomous system to the budget can sow.

In cold storage, the use of driverless vehicles can also lead to reduced energy costs, according to Wiskar, who explained that, by cutting the time that food products spend out of storage, it can increase the integrity of a company’s cold supply chain.

Accountable manufacturing

“Integrating both the production side of an operation and the logistics side of the business means that orders
are always where they’re supposed to be when they’re supposed to be and always contain the product they’re supposed to,” Wiskar said.

“The AGV market is now mature and the means of ensuring safe operation and safe interaction with users is well advanced. With minor modifications to facility layout and workflow, safety can be engineered into facilities for staff and their interaction with these systems.”

In the factory, the role of an AGV is essentially to transport raw or manufactured materials from one place to another – however, more often than not, they are restricted to fixed paths, which require a rigid design that may be difficult to adjust during changes to a factory layout in the future.

As an industry automation specialist, Omron Australia has been demonstrating their latest technology that is shaping a new path for autonomous material transportation.

Speaking with Manufacturers’ Monthly at this year’s foodpro convention in Sydney, automation technology product manager Christopher Probst introduced Omron’s Autonomous Intelligent Vehicle (AIV), which is expected to add value to the traditional AGV.

“Driverless transport systems have been around for decades now and the ones you particularly see in the manufacturing environment is the AGV,” Probst said.

“There is a fair bit of infrastructure that is required to fit the facility out so that your AGV can run through your building. The problem you have is that AGVs don’t have obstacle avoidance.”

For example, if someone drops a pallet in the path of the AGV, the vehicle has to stop in the middle of a task, therefore breaking down the operation’s workflow.

“AIVs aren’t there to replace AGVs,” Probst explained, “however they handle smaller payloads more quickly and much more effectively.

autonomous3“If its path is blocked, the AIV will automatically calculate a new route. With workers who may not be paying attention, even they can see how an AIV travels around you.”

The technology’s Natural Feature Navigation (NFN) creates a virtual map, which aids to strategically position pick-up and drop-off points for material around the workplace.

“In a sense, it offers an adaptable conveyor model, which is very useful where you need flexible manufacturing and multiple pick-up and drop-off points,” Probst said.

“Wherever people are manually pushing carts around, the AIV does the job a lot better and has a lot of advantages as well. They are deterministic, meaning they will always go where they need to go irrespective of whether something or someone is blocking its path.”

What that means for manufacturing is that a business can own consistent and efficient production lines, he explained – without disrupting human workloads.

In a typical workplace, workers who do manual handling typically carry out tasks such as parts picking, inspection and placement, loading up boxes
and trays.

However, in a workplace with AIVs, there is an opportunity to free up more time for staff to carry out higher- value tasks.

“One of the things that drives the industry is the cost of production,” Probst continued. “If you can move your parts through the workplace more quickly, efficiently and with traceability, you become more competitive.

“This is the advantage of overall equipment effectiveness to have a competitive advantage.”

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