Automatic guided vehicles, commonly referred to as AGVs, are used in beverage warehouses to transport pallets of product from end-of-line machinery to storage and shipping areas. While they may seem similar to forklifts, AGVs offer a few major differences: no operator is needed, and the path AGVs follow is laser guided, so the vehicles know exactly where and when to pick up products. In addition, sensors tell the vehicle when an object or person is in the guided path, and the AGV will stop accordingly.
“AGVs know where they are at all times, and they travel on a predetermined route,” says John Hayes, vice president of sales, automatic guided vehicles at HK Systems, Park City, Utah. “They won’t run into things because they all have safeties that prohibit them from doing so. If a person were to walk in front of an AGV or a box or pallet was lying in the path of the AGV, the AGV will recognize it and stop. There are sensors on all sides of the vehicles.”
Another benefit of AGVs is they can save costs and reduce labor, manufacturers say.
The ROI of AGVs
The cost of machinery and the return on investment are two issues concerning many potential AGV customers.
Mark Stevenson, vice president of business development for Egemin Automation Inc., Holland, Mich., says AGVs provide a great return on investment, particularly in the area of damage reduction.
“It’s as close to mathematical zero as you can get,” he says. “There is no damage to product or cases or the facility.”
HK Systems’ Hayes agrees that product damage from traditional forklifts can be avoided with AGVs.
“There is a lot of product damage because of forklift interaction,” he says. “With forklifts, you hit product, you knock product off shelves, you handle it roughly. The AGVs are programmed to handle the product the exact same way all the time.”
“This vehicle can travel safely on a very accurate path and perform these tasks,” Stevenson says. “The reason they have not been widespread in the beverage industry in the last 50 years is because they have not been affordable. The total cost of ownership for the system and the depreciation is being measured against forklifts and the associated labor costs.”
Marketing Manager Mark Longacre of Chicago-based JBT Corp. says he also sees many companies interested in AGVs, but with concerns about cost and return on investment.
“Beverage companies want installation of an AGV system to provide a strong financial return, payback, ROI, etc.,” he says. “A project to install an AGV system competes for capital along with all the other potential improvement or expansion projects at the facility.”
The initial purchase of an AGV may be more expensive than a manual forklift truck, but with less damage to product and other aspects of the facility, the cost savings is higher, HK Systems’ Hayes says. Because AGVs do not run into things in the warehouse, they also have a longer life than forktrucks.
AGVs also use less current and manage their current better than forklifts, so there is a savings on the green side as well, he adds.
Egemin’s Stevenson says his company has developed a sophisticated model to determine just how effective AGVs would be in a beverage company’s operation.
“The current economic conditions have forced customers to be very careful with their investments in equipment,” he says. “We see customers being more detailed in their evaluation of equipment and suppliers. To thoroughly evaluate a given customer’s needs and make certain we propose the correct number of AGVs, we often build a computer model which simulates all the material handling tasks to be handled by the AGV system. The model helps customers evaluate current and expected future production levels to make sure the optimum number of AGVs is provided.”
Egemin refers to its AGVs as “E’gvs,” Egemin Guided Vehicles. The two E’gvs used in the beverage industry are the Unit Load E’gv and the Counter-Balanced Forklift Style E’gv.
The Counter-Balanced Forklift Style E’gv performs the functions of a forklift with the same flexibility and variety of applications, the company says. E’gvs can be fitted with single or double forks, dual collapsible forks and slip sheet attachments, among others.
“They are capable of stacking and unstacking in the warehouse in any manner: on the floor, or in any type of rack, including drive-in, single/double deep, push back, flow-through and VNA rack,” Stevenson says. “The most attractive benefit of the E’gv is that existing warehouse layouts can be automated without the expense of re-laying out the warehouse or moving racks.”
“Automating the warehouse with the end-of-line automation is neat, and it’s got a lot of applications, but it only solves half the problem. The vehicles have to be able, in order to meet the savings hurdle, to load any truck, without exception.”
Egemin also produces the Unit Load style vehicles, which carry products on their backs, and have a variety of deck options, such as roller bed, chain conveyors and lift-lower decks, Stevenson says. The machinery is used to move palletized or slip-sheeted product between operations such as banding and stretchwrapping, or acting as a transfer car function to transport unit loads from multiple production lines to the infeed of a set of stretchwrappers.
HK Systems has supplied automated guided vehicles for more than 30 years. In the beverage business, HK Systems’ two most commonly used AGVs are the Fork Style Automated Guided Vehicles and the HK75/T Turret Automated Guided Vehicles.
The HK75/T is an AGV equipped with turret forks or shuttle table that can operate in conventional rack systems. The machine can operate 24/7 and is designed to move pallets from end of aisle interfaces, such as conveyor and VNA post and beam or flow rack system. The machine receives instructions for pallet retrieval from a host interface such as HK’s Equipment Management Systems.
HK System’s AGVs are comprised of two elements: a laser guidance system, which uses lasers on the vehicle and reflectors in the facility to guide the vehicle; and a control system, which is a stationary computer system that directs the most appropriate vehicle to pick up pallets and tells it where to go.
“The technology really fits in the same space as a man on a forklift,” Hayes says. “In essence, we just removed the function of the person in the middle and replaced it with messages instead.”
The company also supplies Fork Style AGVs, which are designed to replace all the functions performed by a conventional forklift, the company says. A loaded fork vehicle enters a floor lane and deposits the load by detecting the last pallet placed in that lane. Fork AGVs have capacities up to 5,000 pounds and lift heights to 21 feet.
The vehicles also can incorporate a bar code or RFID reader to provide product identification and real-time load tracking. The fork uses an on-board touchscreen HMI display that provides operator or maintenance personnel access to more than 200 diagnostic routes.
JBT Corp. also provides forklift-style AGVs with single forks, double forks, single/double attachments, clamps and custom lifting rigs. In addition, the AGVs can stack product on the floor and interface with stands, conveyors, standard racking, flow racking and pushback racking.
“Forked vehicles have become the most popular type of AGV because they are very flexible to service different pick-up and drop-off conditions, and can easily adapt to applications that were once serviced by manual fork trucks,” Stevenson says.
The company’s AGVs have a host computer that tracks movement of all the vehicles at the facility and also tracks movement of the products. The AGVs also run on the company’s laser navigation technology. BI