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The ABCs of AGVs and AMRs

By Karen Haywood Queen Contributing Editor, SME Media
Jeff DeClue (right) and RedViking chief engineer Navid Mellatshahi discuss the FlexForm AMR fleet.
Jeff DeClue (right) and RedViking chief engineer Navid Mellatshahi discuss the FlexForm AMR fleet.

Driven by advances in technology, manufacturers and warehouse operations are switching to automated guided vehicles (AGVs) for moving materials.

According to Jeff DeClue, business development manager at RedViking, use cases for AGVs have been expanding significantly.

“As technology has advanced, costs have come down,” says DeClue, whose company manufactures both AGVs and autonomous mobile robots (AMRs). “Compared to forklifts, AGVs and AMRs have become a much more economical and safe solution for material handling.”

Increasing Capabilities with AGVs

About 70 years ago, the first AGVs were larger than a 2.5-ton pickup truck, and they cost $20,000 to $200,000. Used mostly in aerospace and automotive industries, these AGVs could move 100-200 feet per minute following a wire on the floor.

Today, manufacturers can leverage more navigation options, as 5G technology has enabled better communication and improved batteries power the vehicles.

“When AGVs first came out, the focus was on big vehicles carrying heavy, cumbersome loads,” says Bruce Buscher, VP, Daifuku Airport America Corp. “The alternatives were big, heavy overhead crane systems and multiple fork trucks.”

Bruce Buscher is vice president at Daifuku Airport America Corp.
Bruce Buscher is vice president at Daifuku Airport America Corp.

According to Buscher, a large AGV order in the early days would be for six or seven vehicles. Now, companies are placing large orders for hundreds or even thousands of vehicles.

One reason for these larger orders is the various levels of weight today’s vehicles can move, with DeClue noting that RedViking sells AGVs that move as much as 100,000 pounds and as few as 200 pounds.

A smaller AGV, also known as an automated guided cart (AGC) or smart cart, sells for $25,000 to $28,000, according to Buscher. Daifuku refers to these vehicles as carts to make them distinct from their larger, more expensive big brothers.

“Now I can assemble a car, assemble a refrigerator, assemble an air conditioner,” Buscher says. “I can move a 100-pound suitcase, a computer chip, a bottle of aspirin. Today the larger market share is focused on moving pallets weighing 200 up to 2,000 pounds. People are looking at ways they can deploy AGVs and AMRs in all aspects of their business–not just moving heavy things. That’s why the market is growing so much.”

Market Growth in Mobile Robot Segment

In 2023, the global AGV market size was valued at $4.8 billion and is expected to grow at a compound annual growth rate of 9.7% to nearly $9.2 billion by 2030, according to Grand View Research.

Further, the mobile robot industry has continued to defy the global economic slowdown, growing by 33% in 2022. It is expected to continue to increase about 30% per year over the next five years, with an estimated market of $6.2 billion by 2027, according to Interact Analysis.

A survey by BlueBotics/ANTdriven reveals that more than 70% of respondents have adopted or plan to adopt automated vehicles to increase operational efficiency, as noted in its Automated Vehicles in Material Handling 2022/2023 Usage Report.

According to Poonam Choudhary, product marketing manager at Otto Motors, this demand is influenced by a variety of factors, including safety and global labor shortages.

For example, one-third of the ANTdriven survey respondents said they were automating to overcome staffing shortages, yet only one-fourth planned to reduce staff.

DeClue says it is easy to justify use cases where AGVs and AMRs replace older, dated technology such as a fixed conveyor or drag line, noting that other good use cases include replacing forklifts and manually driven tuggers, both of which post higher safety risks and higher operational costs compared to AGVs and AMRs.

Poonam Choudhary is product marketing manager at Otto Motors.
Poonam Choudhary is product marketing manager at Otto Motors.

Increased Efficiency

From the earliest days, AGVs improved efficiency. Manufacturers can leverage this to improve business outcomes, and workers who have been driving forklifts and doing other tasks replaced by the technology can be retrained on other tasks, Buscher says.

Buscher notes that today’s AGVs are faster and can now move 300 feet a minute, while assembly lines usually slow down the speed to 100 feet a minute.

Battery technology also has advanced “exponentially” over the last eight years, according to DeClue. A decade ago, most of RedViking’s AGVs were inductively powered because of the large size and inefficiency of the batteries used to move heavy loads. Charging and disposal of batteries were also problematic, but those issues have been resolved.

Meanwhile, companies such as Amazon have shifted from forklifts and pallet jacks to AMRs for moving materials, and manufacturers are shifting from fixed conveyors to AGVs and AMRs.

“Fifty years ago, companies like Amazon didn’t exist and FedEx was still in its infancy,” DeClue notes. “Conveyor systems and forklifts were the primary methods to move or convey products and materials. Increases in product demand and the desire for quicker delivery drove companies to create new technologies to improve throughput and efficiency.”

That’s why manufacturers are replacing assembly lines with AGVs. Seven in 10 respondents to the ANTdriven report cited increased operational efficiency as the reason they were adopting automated vehicles.

“You can move your assembly line wherever you want,” Buscher says. “Nothing is bolted to the floor.”

In the past, when moving heavy items via overhead systems, factory work had to halt as workers moved out from under the system, which decreased productivity, Buscher adds. “Everyone has to stop their work in this 50-foot stretch—no one can be under that coil while it’s moving. If a strap or chain breaks and the thing falls, you have a serious issue on your hands.”

Improved Safety

Every year, 75-95 people die in forklift accidents, and about 7,500 are injured, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

“Manual material handling is dangerous, potentially repelling workers from jobs in the supply chain,” Choudhary says. In fact, OSHA statistics show a 90% chance of a serious accident occurring during the eight-year average lifespan of a forklift.

Switching to AGVs or AMRs is a much safer alternative, DeClue contends. And 29% of respondents in the ANTdriven survey agree, indicating they were adopting automated vehicles to improve safety.

But if forklifts continue to be deployed in an area where AGVs or AMRs are used, manufacturers should provide proper planning and training to ensure safe co-existence, DeClue notes.

Better Reliability

The reliability of using automated solutions has improved greatly in the last 10-15 years, DeClue asserts.

“One of the biggest shifts we have seen in recent years as a full-scale automation provider, is that several years ago we needed to sell our customers on the merits of an AGV versus traditional conveyance and/or material handling applications,” DeClue says. “AGVs were not considered as reliable or dependable as they are today. Stories of AGVs driving off their path and into a parking lot just don’t happen anymore.”

Enhanced Solutions

The most impactful advancement in the market has been the expanded variety of guidance and navigation solutions, DeClue notes.

Initially, AGVs were guided by electric wires. These were replaced or supplemented by magnetic guidance in the 1970s, lasers in the 1980s, vision in 2008 and natural navigation in 2016, according to Grand View Research.

“The preferred guidance method really boils down to the use case and determining which guidance method makes the most sense for that particular use case,” DeClue says.

Still, navigation remains the distinguishing factor between AGVs and AMRs (although it should be noted that some users refer to smaller AGVs as AMRs).

“Historically, AGVs were built to follow physical guides and stay on a perfect path, much like a train stays on its tracks,” Choudhary explains. “Unlike pre-planned routes, like a train on a track, our system offers flexibility, akin to navigating with Google Maps.”

Gaps Between AGVs and AMRs

Is the gap between AGVs and AMRs narrowing? Some say yes, others no.

Choudhary thinks so. “There’s a convergence happening. AGVs are doing more virtual line following and eliminating the need for physical infrastructure,” he says. “AMRs have an endpoint in mind, and take whichever path is most efficient. Otto AMRs can still adapt locally to avoid obstacles or globally replan, similar to handling unexpected roadblocks while driving. This bridges the gap between predictability and flexibility, creating the ideal combination in one robot for a variety of use cases in manufacturing facilities.”

Scott Winston, business development manager at Contextant, has a different perspective. “I think (the gap) is widening,” he asserts. “AMRs continue to evolve with more features and capabilities. They are able to handle more complex workloads.”

Still, supporters and manufacturers of each fleet continue to debate the pros and cons.

“Thanks to the expanded capability and capacity of the technology in the market, AGVs have an almost undeniable value proposition in manufacturing and warehousing applications,” DeClue says. “Every day, we are challenged by our customers to develop new automation solutions, including AGV and AMR solutions to aid in and improve the manufacturing process.”

Meanwhile, AGV makers say that AMRs have not yet reached optimal reliability.

In recent years, some companies have begun hiring so-called robot wranglers to straighten out the mess AMRs create.

“What customers are finding out very quickly is that obstacle avoidance isn’t all it was sold to be,” Buscher states. “Neither is alternative paths. An AMR doesn’t necessarily have the intelligence to figure basic things out, such as, ‘How big is the load in front of me?’ ‘How wide is it?’ ‘Where am I in the aisle?’ ‘Do I have room to go around that obstacle without hitting something else?’ Now the robot is causing problems in other parts of the plant.”

Scott Winston is business development manager at Contextant, an Illinois-based company that designs warehouse automation solutions.
Scott Winston is business development manager at Contextant, an Illinois-based company that designs warehouse automation solutions.

As AMR fleet management systems and hardware sensors continue to improve and adapt based on their surroundings, Winston says these incidents should occur less and less.

“There are always environmental variables that can cause an issue,” Winston says. “However, this is not enough to not go with an AMR solution. Vendors should be able to identify a root cause and apply a fix.”

When not properly installed and deployed, an AMR may be unable to locate an alternative route and become stuck, aka deadlock, according to Jane Heffner, vice president of sales in the United States for Mobile Industrial Robots (MiR).

“However, our robots are specifically engineered to circumvent such circumstances. They are equipped with a feature within the MiR Fleet to ‘call for help,’ although they rarely reach this point,” Heffner says. “Our Fleet Software can be programmed to prevent these situations, allowing the robots to change driving behavior when approaching difficult terrain such as narrow aisles, or blocked paths.”

Embracing the Value of AGVs and AMRs

Automotive, electronics and semiconductor industries are sectors that are utilizing AMRs the most. However, in recent years, Heffner adds, more sectors have adopted AMRs, including logistics, third-party logistics and fast-moving consumer goods sectors. This surge is attributed to the rapidly evolving changes in industries, labor shortages and the instability of supply chains.

“More and more companies are beginning to embrace the technology and value that AGVs and AMRs can bring to the table,” DeClue says.

Understanding the end goal is critical, he adds. Is the end goal to reduce costs by eliminating operators? Improve safety by eliminating forklifts? Improve throughput and efficiency by updating technology?

“ROI is the key driver,” DeClue says, noting this can range from several months to several years.

Otto Motors typically sees an ROI of less than two years for its AMRs, Choudhary says, and one customer, Faurecia Interior Systems, achieved an 11-month ROI alongside a 15% reduction in cell size.

“Understanding the total cost of ownership is an important and often overlooked consideration,” DeClue adds.

Initial costs vary, and while some may look attractive on the front end, the long-term operational costs can kill a return on investment.

“We help our customers work through the thought process to ensure they include these considerations during their decision process. As it relates to AGVs or AMRs, that decision boils down to understanding the scope of the project and providing the solution that best meets the customer’s needs.”

AGVs at the Airport

Daifuku has expanded into bag handling at TSA inspection points in some U.S. airports, taking a load off TSA workers in those facilities.

Currently, Buscher explains, when a scanning system rejects a bag as suspicious, TSA workers have to manually bring the bag to an inspection station to see what’s inside.

“Some of these bags weigh more than 100 pounds,” Buscher says. “TSA agents were injuring their backs.”

Airports in several major cities—New York, Detroit, Cleveland, Orlando, Dallas, Miami, Pittsburgh and Portland (Ore.)—use Daifuku’s Mobile Inspection Tables, which bring rejected bags to inspectors.

TSA at these airports can now hire people with disabilities to do the job. “TSA workers don’t have to lift anything,” Buscher adds.

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