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Are AGVs Right for You?

Automated guided vehicles are moving from cutting-edge to mainstream. What should you know?

AGV Systems Inquiry

driverless forklift AGV loading empty pallets.

AGVs–automated guided vehicles–are mainstream. You see them in increasingly diverse applications and functioning in areas of the supply chain that may have seemed impossible a few years ago. Especially as e-commerce continues to accelerate and consumers demand more and faster shipments, companies must innovate to meet demand. AGV technology is ready for real-world use and can provide the answer, but is it a good fit for you?

“If  you use the traditional formula of comparing hard numbers (cost of AGVs vs. the systems and labor they replace) you’ll get a numerical answer, but that’s not enough. It should only be the start of your evaluation.”

–Scott Matlock, General Manager, L&A, Muratec USA

What are your load characteristics?

AGVs can handle most any load, from pallets to totes. A load characteristic analysis can help you understand if AGVs are a fit for you:

  • Type of load: Pallet, container, tote, bale or other load types
  • Load dimensions: height, width, depth
  • Load characteristics: are loads consistent in their centers of gravity, or other factors that might impact handling
  • Load weight: AGVs have specific load capacities that must be observed

Accurate load profiles mean your AGVs will handle your products in ways that ensure proper handling and safety.

How will AGVs fit your future growth?

Whether it’s carousels, conveyors, robots or AGVs, every automation decision must be filtered through the prism of return-on-investment. One of the main factors is how the AGVs can factor into future growth. The key is to understand how many units to deploy and how many you may need as your business grows. Ideally, your AGV fleet should be able to handle peak throughput, but also have a minimal number of idle units during slow periods.

How will AGVs integrate with your existing systems and processes?

AMR robot interfacing with docks and conveyors.

Above: AGVs interface with conveyors and high-speed doors in a pallet handling application

One of the strongest reasons to consider AGVs is their operational flexibility. They can work anywhere you have floor space and a defined process.

Interface points

AGVs can interface with conveyor lines, AS/RS systems, racks, trailers or other points. Different types of AGVs are designed to work with various loads and must be correctly specified.

AGVs’ ability to operate in tight areas, spin in place and execute movement in multiple directions lets you add them to the end of a conveyor line or AS/RS system. They can deliver picks to workers or picking carts in fixed positions where workers fill orders directly from shelves, carousels or carton flow. You can easily establish or change routing, which gives you the flexibility to adapt to seasons, market adjustments, re-slotting or other SKU changes.

In terms of layout factors, AGVs may be the most flexible type of automation. They don’t require dedicated space and can easily be routed and re-routed as needed. Their low-level design, tight-space transport and ability to interface with conveyors makes them very easy to add to your operation

How will AGVs work in your space and workflow?

AGV implementations rely on material flow and workspace. What paths would the AGVs take? What other types of product transport are either necessary or possible? Remember that AGVs can help you optimize space by reducing the amount of floor area used by fixed-location equipment. They maneuver through aisles, down trafficways, in tight spaces and between or around structural elements. AGVs don’t directly save space, but their flexibility can help you optimize yours because you can design safe, efficient traffic routing that is all controllable by process.

AGV in a pallet movement application.

Shifts, hours and workflows

The hours of operation, the number of shifts and number of workdays a week should be part of your information package. These factors can alter the types of AGVs needed as well as the number of machines necessary to run the system. Navigation, charging and other factors also come into play. If there are definable business surges, could a potential system handle them?

Do AGVs fit your maintenance, repair and support capacity?

Manual processes require more personnel management, while automated equipment always requires maintenance and repair costs. You’ll need to maintain and service your AGVs, or have a third-party partner who can do that for you. Don’t forget that you’ll need IT support and other services for your implementation.

Read more: New Rules for Industrial Automation ROI

Is your facility environment suitable for AGVs?

What are the factors?

  • Air quality and environment: Be sure your proposed solution can operate within the parameters of any ambient moisture or airborne debris. If your facility operates outside standard temperature, humidity or other standard conditions, further questions apply. For example, are you operating in a cold chain or cleanroom environment? These conditions don’t mean you can’t utilize AGVs, but you’ll have to take them into account as you move forward. Many AGV types can operate in these conditions.
  • Floors are crucial. Most implementations are on standard concrete floors, but if your application involves pick modules, mezzanines or other specialty floors, their surfaces should be evaluated for suitability. If you deploy AGVs on other surfaces, the durability of those surfaces should be defined.

If AGVs operate on any elevated platform, that platform’s point-load capacity should be able to handle the weight of the vehicle and its maximum load in motion. Some floor decks are built just for AGV operations, so it’s absolutely possible to operate on these surfaces with adequate forethought and process definition.

How will the implementation affect plant safety?

several driverless AGV forklifts pictured in a group.

Above, left – Muratec A8 Counterbalance Forklift, which stacks and destacks pallets at heights up to 34 feet; center – Muratec Premex SLX automated forklift loading a pallet rack; right – Muratec A4 driverless forklift, a versatile AGV for distribution operations that can lift pallets up to 19 feet and carry 4,400-pound payloads. 

People may object to “more things moving on the floor,” but things–mostly forklifts–are probably already moving on the floor. Driverless forklift implementations could even reduce the number of operating vehicles. Reducing human interactions in those areas is the key.

We were asked by one customer to help clear a congested dock operation of forklift logjams by replacing forklifts with AGVs. When dozens of forklifts need to access the same limited number of dock doors, AGVs do not add to the traffic load — and may reduce it. Because they’re software-driven and flexible, you can dictate priorities for access far easier than you could by trying to coordinate forklift drivers. This might also allow a net reduction in the number of vehicles that use the area.

Pedestrian safety evaluation
  • Operate where people shouldn’t: Critically, AGVs can move chemicals or other hazardous materials in harsh environments, which will allow you to remove people from those spaces and roles. The ROI on safety has always been difficult to calculate, but it’s an extremely important factor. When there are mixed forklift/pedestrian zones, consider AGVs to help reduce the number of people in the zone.
  • Reducing pedestrian-forklift interactions can make almost any warehouse safer. AGVs are far easier to regulate than human-controlled forklifts. They will always obey the traffic rules you set in place and can integrate with warning systems, overhead doors and automated gates for pedestrian safety.

One of the most important–and often most overlooked–automation considerations is safety. AGVs can help remove people from areas where interactions with machinery, heavy loads and processes can endanger them. Always weigh safety gains in your analysis.

How will AGVs affect labor considerations?

You probably know that we may be in the toughest time in modern history to hire and retain labor, and that it’s going to be harder in the coming years. AGVs should be in the mix for forward-thinking companies who want to find ways to cope with labor availability issues, along with AS/RS, other types of robotics, conveyors and other automated systems.

AMR delivers shelving to pickers in a goods to person order picking application.

Like many types of automation, AGVs allow you to operate with fewer people. They let you add shifts when shift workers are either unavailable or in short supply, as do many other types of automation. Where they distinguish themselves is in their flexibility–particularly labor flexibility.

Labor flexibility factors to consider

  • Geographic flexibility: Labor is in short supply in America’s urban centers, where 75% of the American population lives. Urban and adjacent counties account for just 10% of the geographic area of the United States, which means that if you need to operate outside those areas, you’ll find staffing harder every year. AMRs can reduce labor dependence in remote, geographically diverse locations. AGVs replace specific types of labor and let you redirect available staff to more productive activities.
  • Ergonomic flexibility: The ergonomics of accessing a more diverse workforce are well-documented. Ideally, if you can employ a broader range of people, you’ll have a larger candidate pool. If everyone has to be able to walk 5 or 10 miles a day in a distribution operation pushing heavy picking carts, your pool is more limited compared to goods-to-person situations. AMRs let you reduce walking, which has always been desirable, by delivering goods virtually anywhere in the facility.
  • Seasonal flexibility: If it’s tough to staff full-time workers, but seasonal spikes are even worse. AGVs are unique in that they can be added or reduced in an operation to help cope with seasonal demands. This reduces your reliance on adding temporary workers during the hardest time of the year to add them.

AGVs  can serve as a connecting point between fixed machinery and fluid processes. They can help you bridge the gaps and add definition to storage and transport processes that help you optimize your systems when labor markets are tight.

Scott Stone is Cisco-Eagle's Vice President of Marketing with more than thirty years of experience in material handling, warehousing and industrial operations. His work is published in multiple industry journals an websites on a variety of warehousing topics. He writes about automation, warehousing, safety, manufacturing and other areas of concern for industrial operations and those who operate them.

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