• Robotic Automation managing director Colin Wells.
    Robotic Automation managing director Colin Wells.

Colin Wells, managing director of APPMA member Robotic Automation, takes a closer look at the historical challenges dogging the uptake of automatic guided vehicles and explains why modern technology is changing the game.

Automatic guided vehicles (AGVs) are not new to Australia, however, the take-up by the ANZ manufacturing industry over the past 30 years has, frankly, been appalling. Why? To attempt to answer the question it’s helpful to understand the important factors involved and consider what’s currently happening, that is going to shape a better future for AGVs.

As a comparison it’s worth taking a look at a close cousin of AGVs – robotics – often a partner to AGVs in automation systems. The adoption rates are completely different, with robotics in the very high bracket and AGVs at the other end of the scale. Also notable is that the longevity of robots is higher compared to that of existing installed AGVs.

Another important point of comparison is what robotics have offered the ANZ manufacturing industry across the board – flexibility, agility, ease-of-programming. The end user can also be easily trained to edit or change programs simply and often does so. To my knowledge, this is unheard of in the AGV installs in ANZ and overseas.

Lack of R&D

Apart from the differences already mentioned, it’s worth noting that the two industries are hugely different in size with the global AGV industry minute compared to the global robotics industry.

This is a major contributing factor in that the amount of dollars spent on R&D is limited by the size of the industry.

Another contributing factor in the AGV world is the long-held acceptance of the status quo by AGV manufacturers, which has led to the AGV control systems being left way behind other comparable industries such as robotics.

It’s this lack of R&D in AGV control systems that have made them complicated and expensive to install or edit, sometimes requiring more than one specialist to perform what should be simple editing tasks.

Basically, this acceptance of the status quo has led to non-user friendly, inflexible AGVs as the only option. This is the opposite of what the ANZ market needs from AGVs as we really require these attributes given the size and frequent changeovers that are common in our industry.

Another point to consider is that many of the AGV manufacturers or suppliers, including for control systems, are located overseas. This has also contributed to a set-and-leave-alone mindset, as editing or changing AGV paths, for instance, are complicated, difficult and expensive.

And compounding the problem, the majority of AGV manufactures have sourced their AGV controllers from a single supplier, which means individual manufacturers have avoided embarking on their own R&D.

Solution in sight

Clearly, it’s a combination of factors that have got us to where we are today, however, that’s all about to change.

Finally, a European AGV manufacturer has produced a Windows-based AGV programming system that’s very simple to use and is extremely user friendly. The company behind it has been employing it now for over 10 years globally and in ANZ (and very successfully).

The same control package also doubles as a very powerful warehouse management system, which is handy if you are also employing an automatic storage and retrieval system, or other storage medium. This modern AGV control package virtually eliminates middleware, which is always the source of  issues in the plants  I have visited in ANZ.

Worth the wait

Modern AGVs should offer end users numerous benefits at a ‘game changing’ level:

They will be customer friendly, with the ability to simply edit or change paths yourself (ideally Windows-based as most people already know the language).

  • The AGVs and control systems will be easy to implement and therefore this will lower overall cost.
  • It will be easy to upgrade or implement additional AGVs.
  • An imbedded WMS that also uses the same Windows-based package makes an ideal partner to use with a ASRS (ie total system approach – get rid of the middleware).
  • Simple customer interface via mobile phone or laptop to access any of the multitude of standard data or real-time performance screens.

We can’t change the past, but the future is looking very bright indeed. In my view, there has never been a better time to look at employing modern AGVs. 

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