AGVs Should Go Beyond Minimum Safety Requirements

Guest blog by Gerard Vilarrasa from MHI Member Company Kivnon

Automated Guided Vehicles (AGVs) offer a way to increase both operational efficiency and safety in a manufacturing plant or warehouse facility. Their use can free up personnel to carry out more value-add tasks and reduce the risk of injury through manual lifting. Of course, however, an AGV will only do what it is programmed to do, and as it often works alongside people, safety must be paramount within the vehicle’s design.

In the USA, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OHSA) estimates incidents with forklifts account for 85 fatalities and 34,900 serious injuries yearly. Most fatalities are caused by being crushed by a forklift, either as it falls, possibly due to an unstable load or driver error, or between the forklift and a hard surface, or another forklift. Other safety concerns for manual operations include fatigue increasing the risk of human error, and injury from improper or repetitive lifting. The use of AGVs helps prevent these scenarios as they operate autonomously, and fewer people need to be in the vicinity of the AGV. But how can you guarantee that the AGVs operate safely?

All manufacturers of mobile robots must ensure compliance with minimum safety measures – but do these go far enough? They state that all AGVs must include some safety sensors and devices to avoid and proactively prevent risks. But they do not cover checking if a load is stable or detecting errors within the process in which the AGV is operating. If considered within the base design AGVs can incorporate additional features to enhance safety levels.

Safety sensors detect if a person, other vehicles, or an obstacle is on the AGVs path. The AGV programming determines whether the vehicle should move around the obstacle (obstacle avoidance) or stop until the path is cleared. Such features are fundamental and required by many regional regulations.

But AGVs are a relatively new addition to site operations, and standards are still developing. To this end, manufacturers should also consider what features will help operators and site managers increase safety while benefiting from the increased efficiency these vehicles can offer.

An incorrectly positioned load, for example, presents risks. If not stable, an AGV may fall, causing injury to people nearby or damaging the goods. In extreme circumstances, it may even cause a vehicle to topple. By placing sensors on the AGV forks or lifting area, information about whether a load is on the vehicle and if it is well positioned, can be collected. The height of the forks also needs to be monitored as this can increase the risk of a collision or, again, make the load more unstable. Armed with data that gives more detail about the logistics process, site managers can evaluate whether there are problems or adjustments that need to be made to increase safety. Data can also help to identify zones where vehicles are frequently stopping and reducing the efficiency of operations, again providing the necessary information for managers to make changes that will further optimize operations.

Another consideration in the design of an AGV is how simple it is to operate. Simplicity reduces human errors, will increase safety and lessens reliance on the need for complex training and skills required to operate these machines. It will also make operations more robust, without reliance on a few skilled personnel to keep operations running smoothly. Finally, managers need to ensure they have the right vehicle type for the processes and loads they have on site.

AGVs are developing, and so are the safety standards that will support their use. They offer excellent solutions in an increasing number of applications and have shown they can increase safety compared with manually operated vehicles. While safety standards are being established, it makes sense to look for AGV solutions that go above and beyond the minimum requirements to ensure increased safety for personnel, equipment, and the goods being transported.