Mobile Robots are on the Move in North America

Guest blog by Jaume Martinez from MHI Member Company Kivnon

Self-driving vehicles are hard at work, offsetting staff shortages, improving productivity, lowering costs, and boosting production value.

Most industrial organizations depend on moving materials from one place to another; the more effectively they do this, the greater their impact on business success. As the pace of business intensifies, driven by increased demand for faster product delivery and variability, staying competitive requires more automation of manual material handling tasks. By enabling driverless goods transport, automated guided vehicles (AGVs) are an increasingly important part of that automation. They are helping suppliers cope with staff shortages, increase production, cut operating costs, and boost production value, safely. According to industry estimates, the North American AGV market is likely to grow at nearly 15% CAGR over the next five years.

Filling staffing gaps

The automation push is welcome at a time when American manufacturing is seriously short of the labor it needs to get the job done. Even with full employment of all skilled workers in the United States, there would still be a 35% surplus of job vacancies in the durable goods manufacturing sector compared to the number of qualified workers available to fill those positions. Deloitte’s projections indicate that by 2030, there will be a deficit of over two million manufacturing workers in America, resulting in a potential annual opportunity cost of $1 trillion per year. Mobile Robots can not only fill staffing shortages, but they can also boost productivity dramatically, reduce operating costs, improve accuracy, and contribute to plant safety.

Boosting productivity

Where human drivers would need to stop to read instructions, AGVs can run 24/7, move boxes or other goods, provide precise motion, and pick more efficiently. At the end of the day, throughput is higher.

In addition to automating their own tasks, Mobile Robots contribute to the productivity of all assets. By delivering workpieces directory to targeted assembly line locations, for example, AGVs can recover downtime that might otherwise get lost while downstream assembly line workers wait for upstream operations to complete. And because programming optimized and programmed all motion in advance, there is no wasted travel, no congestion, and highly efficient material flow.

Such productivity benefits compound dramatically when deploying mobile robots in synchronized fleets. A manufacturer can, for example, configure a fleet of AGVs to replace an entire conveyor belt system, enabling sequential production of one product and then morphing automatically to handle a different product.

Optimizing space and scaling

In addition to improving productivity, this kind of flexibility enables companies to make maximum use of limited space. Having to build a new conveyor belt for each product, as has often been the case, would be very costly for space-constrained operations and would also present a barrier to entry into new markets. The modular nature of AGVs makes it easier to scale up or down to meet changing demands, deploying only the number of units required. Plus, because AGVs need less space to maneuver within the warehouse, they enable higher storage density, which optimizes inventory utilization strategies.

Communicating across the enterprise

Fulfilling the AGV collaboration potential requires onboard communications systems. Today’s mobile robots communicate with each other, with warehouse management systems (WMS), or with other material handling platforms. But they can also interact with other enterprise applications such as ERP or CRM software, or directly with machines and lifts. An AGV that must move a pallet load between floors, for example, could follow digital instructions to approach the lift, open the door, enter the lift, and move to the next floor.

Protecting workers

Mobile robots also contribute to a safer, friendlier workplace. According to the Occupational Health and Safety Administration (OSHA), there haven’t been any industrial AGV-related fatalities since the early 1990s and most of those were the result of improper equipment use. Indeed, those same factors that contribute to productivity and quality also contribute to safer, more operator-friendly operations.

AGVs have redundant sensors and advanced navigation systems that enable safe movements in busy environments, reducing the risk of dangerous collisions. They will stop or slow down when they encounter a person or a building column. pallet load or another obstacle. Emergency stop buttons, pressure-sensitive or mechanical bumpers, and software that monitors speed, inclines, declines, and curves—enable failure detection and correction before the AGV malfunctions.

In addition to improving plant safety, AGVs enable more ergonomically friendly work environments. They automate repetitive tasks that can cause personnel to become fatigued and therefore more likely to make a mistake that could increase safety risks and product damage. They can transport and lift heavy loads to high or low heights—activities that increase the risk of ergonomic strains and injuries due to improper lifting, stretching, reaching, pushing, pulling, or repeatedly handling a load. And because they are driverless, AGVs can work nearer to hazardous or extreme conditions, such as handling corrosive or dangerous materials, or transporting products inside freezer systems, both of which pose heightened personnel risks.

Cutting operating costs, accelerating ROI

While applications vary, mobile robots often pay for themselves, usually within two years of purchase, either by reducing operating costs or increasing production value. Eliminating staffing gaps, improving productivity and collaboration, product quality and safety can all contribute to measurable operating cost reductions, especially when factoring in the savings from reduced training costs.

On top of that, programmed, consistent operations add production value in at least three ways. First, they drive unnecessary delays out of the value stream. The product you can deliver tomorrow usually has more value to the buyer than the one you send next week. Second, they reduce the incidence of human error, a well-acknowledged cause of product quality breaches. And third, with robots doing the heavy lifting, manufacturers can deploy staff to more value-added tasks such as configuring optimized fleets to leverage quality or analyzing operations for more strategic pricing.

Looking ahead, the demand for faster delivery of more personalized solutions will not likely decrease and the capabilities of automated logistics solutions to meet these demands will continue to advance. This convergence indicates that AGVs will continue to evolve with market needs and play an increasing role in tomorrow’s industrial profitability.