As the pandemic has stacked the need for reducing employee interactions on top of the ever-present need for manufacturers to increase efficiency, resulting needs are shining has a spotlight on the benefits that automated guided vehicles (AGVs) can provide in a warehouse.

With the ability to optimize picking, transport and store product without the need for permanent conveying systems or interventions from a labor crew, AGVs help minimize the need for employees in this manufacturing space while boosting production efficiency and safety.

According to Mark Longacre, application engineering manager at Philadelphia-based JBT Corp., AGVs have always been used to reduce labor in production and warehousing. Although reducing labor cost was the initial focus, social distancing, safety and labor availability also are deepening AGVs benefits. 

“If a manual forklift driver is transporting materials, he potentially encroaches on another person’s workspace at the pick-up, delivery or other points,” he says. “AGVs eliminate these interactions, also reducing the number of people in a facility and thereby decreasing all potential social interactions in these facilities.”

The beverage factor

Because of the large amounts of product that moves day-to-day in a beverage facility, facility managers have a lot riding on efficient, reliable operations. As such, Longacre advises that beverage manufacturers choose a preferred supplier before defining requirements for achieving a successful system.

He add that these systems must be designed for the correct capacity, traffic flow, load manipulation and integration that defines the project. Once the system is in place, he says the impact is notable.

“Repetitive material movement needs to happen, but does not add value to the product,” Longacre says. “In beverage, AGVs create a safer, more efficient, lower-cost operation, allowing manufacturers to redeploy labor to tasks that add value to the product. This results in safer, more efficient operations with lower disruption risk from short-term labor shortages.”

In the beverage industry, JBT has integrated with existing warehouse management systems (WMS) to facilitate communication between the AGVs and the customer’s WMS.

“Traditionally in the beverage industry, manufacturers push for larger systems. However, they now recognize AGVs can reduce labor to address their decreasing labor pool/increasing wage pressure challenges,” he says. “They are past testing AGVs in small-scale trials and now do wide-scale deployments to realize the full financial benefits of automation.”

Latest advancements

Although AGVs might be receiving more attention than in previous years, the technology has been isn’t new, and has seen many advancements since its inception.

Longacre says that recent investments in AGV have been aimed at developing new sensors, battery/charging, navigation, fleet-optimization and system integration technology that result in safer AGV systems that do more work.

“The technological sophistication of today’s AGV systems is amazing,” Longacre says.

He also lists advantages he says result in increased AGV productivity:

  • Sensors that can see farther for safer operation and faster vehicles. 
  • Batteries that charge more quickly and last longer
  • Multiple navigation systems cooperating for precise vehicle positioning with minimal or no infrastructure. 
  • Software that manages vehicles movements, communicating to other systems to prioritize and optimize material delivery.

For example, Austria-based AMO, a brand of Traunreut, Germany-based HEIDENHAIN, has launched Functional Safety (FS) absolute angle and linear encoders that can be implemented with a variety of manufacturing equipment, including AGVs.

“The encoders that we provide are critical to providing feedback for the drive wheels on these AGVs, providing integral feedback in the motion system,” said Jonathan Dougherty, HEIDENHAIN’s business development manager of the automation division, in a statement.

HEIDENHAIN notes that the benefit of FS-certified machines is that their feedback contributes a host of extra safety advantages that enable a user to operate with or near the machinery, knowing that risk of error or issue is very low.

Jürgen Bukowski, senior project engineer for Pilz International Services Group, Cork,

Ireland says that other recent developments in AGVs include a trend toward more flexible navigation, from AGVs to autonomous mobile vehicles (AMV).

“AMVs are less dependent on fixed infrastructure, making them easier to integrate, but also less predictable or possibly less safe,” he says. “AGVs are safer compared to manually driven vehicles, but the safety depends on their integration and correct usage.”

Growth on the horizon

Experts note that the demand for AGVs is expected to grow due to increasing automation and industrialization, which has led to greater improved efficiency, custom material-handling and better transport solutions.

According to the “2018 Global AGV Sales Volume” report by Statista’s Research Department, about 110,700 AGV units were sold globally in 2018, some 103,000 of which were deployed in non-manufacturing environments.

San Francisco-based Grandview Research’s report “Automated Guided Vehicle Market Size, Share, Trends Analysis Report and Forecasts: 2020-2027,” states that the global market value for AGVs totaled $3 billion in 2019 and is expected to witness a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 14.1 percent from 2020 to 2027.

Pilz’s Bukowsi’s agrees with this outlook, noting that in the future, the vehicles not only will have a load lifting and carrying ability, but with the help of a robot arm manipulator like the Pilz robot arm, manufacturers will be able to perform pick-and-place or other handling tasks.

“In these situations, intelligent evaluation of environmental data such as traffic, volume of people and sensor evaluation of critical areas, combined with vehicle data, will further increase AGV performance while ensuring safety for those exposed to the system,” he says.

JBT’s Mark Longacre agrees with this idea, based on developments he has seen and those he knows are on the horizon. In fact, in the past three years, the AGV industry has experienced between 10-20 percent growth, which he expects will continue.

Grandview Research’s report on AGVs also notes specific areas of growth that include the unit load carrier segment. This area is anticipated to demonstrate substantial growth between 2020 and 2027, as these carriers allow for scheduling tasks efficiently by reducing aisle traffic and product damage, it states. They also offer trackable timing and product delivery, making them efficient for large product shipments. The vision guidance segment of AGVs also is expected to witness healthy growth as advances in computer vision and related software solutions allow AGVs to better analyze their environment in real time. Finally, use of AGVs in the wholesale and distribution sector of manufacturing is expected to demonstrate substantial growth by 2027, according to the report.

HEIDENHAIN’s Dougherty concludes, “Going forward, [HEIDENHAIN] sees the future of AGVs expanding in the beverage industry, warehouse logistics and commercial/consumer applications.”

As AGVs’ capabilities and usage expands, the need for this technology can be expected to grow.