How to Get Started with Automated Vehicles
Guest blog by Nicola Tomatis from MHI Member Company BlueBotics
Intralogistics is changing rapidly, with more and more organizations looking to automated guided vehicles (AGVs) to increase efficiency and ‘drive’ greater resilience into operations. Whether due to the need to improve efficiency or labor shortages, the AGV market is booming. The AGV market is projected to grow from USD 2.17 billion in 2022 to USD 4.11 billion by 2029, exhibiting a CAGR of 9.6% during the forecast period (1).
But, if you are considering investing in this technology, where should you start?
In the beginning, do not worry about understanding how the technology works. Instead, think about the processes you might want to automate.
To be automated successfully, manual processes need to be standardized and harmonized. So, think about structuring each process to do what you need, while simplifying it as much as possible.
After all, AGVs can only do what they are programmed to do, so understanding the details of an application, including the volumes of materials or products to be transported, frequencies, and distances travelled, is an essential part of this preparation process.
Once the process is robustly defined, you can move on to defining the vehicle best capable of meeting your needs. Expert AGV integrators can help with this process and provide the link between technology and how to apply it to ensure you get the value you expect.
Then think solutions
When exploring your vehicle options, start with the specifications of the payloads you want to move. Then, find the companies and technologies that can transport such payloads easily and efficiently. The goal always, of course, is to maximize your return on investment (ROI).
A critical part of the technical equation here is the navigation system a vehicle is built upon. In other words, how exactly it understands where it is at any one time and, from there, moves around its operating environment. This automation layer will impact not only the vehicle’s initial installation time and cost, but also the level of flexibility your AGV can offer – making future installation updates either quick and easy or long and painful.
When looking into this navigation component question, it pays to consider whether the technology in question is proven in real-world applications, the types of vehicles (and potentially other brands) that the navigation system supports, and the overheads involved should you need to change how your AGVs operate in the future – just how flexible is it then?
Let’s dig into this topic a little more deeply…
Navigation technologies: a quick primer
Line following is the first generation and simplest form of autonomous navigation. Vehicles follow a predefined path using installed lines, magnetic tape, or inductive wire. Sensors on the vehicles follow the path. This technology moves vehicles precisely, but it also requires significant changes to a site infrastructure, making it costly to install, maintain, and a hassle to modify.
Tag following is like line following but uses QR codes, RFID tags, or magnetic points installed throughout the site. Again, it offers solid accuracy and reliability, but the changes required to infrastructure mean higher installation costs and make modification difficult.
Laser triangulation (also called laser guidance) uses three or more references to triangulate the position of the AGV in its environment – crucial to its effective operation. Lasers on top of the vehicle bounce off reflectors installed around the site. The installation of such vehicles can take considerable time, and lasers need to be high on the vehicle, meaning this technology is not suitable for low vehicles such as underride AGVs. However, since the vehicle’s paths are virtual and easily reconfigured using software, this technology does offer flexibility if changes are needed.
Vision guidance uses cameras installed on the AGV that recognizes features throughout the site. With no changes to infrastructure, installation is quick and simple. However, the system is sensitive to site lighting conditions, that can, in many cases, impact a vehicle’s accuracy, reliability, and speed.
Natural navigation uses 2D scanners (often the vehicle’s built-in safety LiDAR scanners) to compare its surroundings with a previously created grid map to determine the location of the AGV. This approach offers flexibility and requires little changes to infrastructure, with maybe just a few reflective stickers to help the system. However, the AGV typically needs to recognize 60% of its environment to position itself accurately. Therefore any changes in the environment can impact its overall reliability, speed, and accuracy.
Another natural navigation system (like the one used at BlueBotics) uses permanent features – such as walls – to a feature map instead of comparing the entire environment to a grid map. This approach can increase the reliability, accuracy, and robustness of the system. Changes to the layout of a site may not affect the system as it only needs to see 5% of the environment to perform.
In effect, this so-called ‘natural feature navigation’ can offer accuracy and reliability equivalent to laser triangulation-based systems but with no permanent changes to the infrastructure required, making for lower installation overheads and easy modification.
As large, multi-site companies adopt AGVs, vehicle interoperability and ease of installation become very important. An operation might require several different brands of AGV to build out its perfect fleet, but running multiple fleet managers, with different user interfaces, will make this difficult, if not impossible.
For a diverse fleet of vehicles to work together effectively, it will traditionally need interlocks and interaction with different traffic management systems. If not operating on a common navigation platform, such interlocks will need to be implemented across every system so that vehicles can share crossroads and operating segments. This is the most effective way to handle interoperability, but it makes system integration and commissioning difficult and time-consuming, while efficiency is limited to the efficiency of the different subsystems involved.
How to get around this thorny issue? The logistics industry is today looking at standardizing communication protocols for interoperability, but these are far from final. There are standards appearing in different regions. The most advanced is in Europe, with Version 2.0 of VDA 5050, the result of a collaboration between the German Association of the Automotive Industry (VDA) and the VDMA Materials Handling and Intralogistics Association, published in January 2022. While in the U.S., interoperability standards are focused on automated mobile robots (AMR), with the first standard published by MassRobotics, a consortium looking to improve interoperability between AMRs. A few weeks ago, China also kicked off its standardization effort for AGVs/AMRs, driven by the China Mobile Robot and AGV Industry Alliance (CMR).
While no standard has yet to emerge as a winner, AGV suppliers are struggling to provide an optimal solution for the market where end users are increasingly requesting many variations of vehicles to work together to deliver the value expected by automation.
For businesses looking at investing in AGVs, the first step is to understand in detail what you need an AGV to provide, to achieve. Think through these processes, try to simplify and standardize them, and then move on to consider the type of automated vehicle that might fit.
There are pitfalls to avoid but help and experience are at hand. Expert AGV integrators can support you in choosing a technology that can maximize ROI and also offer the flexibility and adaptability required to meet your organization’s evolving needs. Interoperability between AGV or AMR brands is even possible, already today, so you can look to build out a uniquely custom fleet. Whatever your business requires.