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Flexibility in a Robotic World

AGV technologies are going to be more adaptable and better able to improve efficiency, especially when it comes to their ability to support customization.
* By Nick Fortuna *

Working in a refrigerated warehouse or distribution center should not mean employees have to be as tough as NFL players who take the field in the middle of winter wearing short sleeves. And it doesn’t, at least not anymore, thanks to the innovations taking place in the automated guided vehicle (AGV) industry. Take, for example, the recently released freezer-rated, narrow-aisle-reach AGV. Or, consider the AGV that has heaters to prevent the lenses of its navigation system from fogging up.

Those are just two examples of automation technology companies expanding the role of AGVs in warehouse, distribution center and manufacturing settings—specifically ones that are refrigerated or below-freezing, such as food distribution centers.

The freezer-rated AGV is the brainchild of MHI member Dematic Mobile Automation based in Atlanta. “It can work in a harsh environment that people don’t want to work in, and it doesn’t need to take breaks to warm up like people do,” said John Clark, director of marketing communications. It can operate in temperatures as low as minus-20 degrees, has a lift height that can access five levels of racking in a typical warehouse, a 2,500-pound load capacity and a reach mechanism to handle double-deep racking, allowing it to pick products in a frozen environment and transport them to warmer-temperature shipping areas.

MHI member SICK Inc., which produces sensors for industrial automation applications, is attacking the same problem from a different angle, according to segment marketing manager J. Bryan Sellars. SICK is using built-in heaters to prevent the lenses of an AGV’s LiDAR laser navigation system from fogging up as it moves into and out of the freezer environment.

Finding solutions by incorporating AGVs created to solve niche challenges is not limited to the refrigerated market. AGV technologies of the future are going to offer more flexibility in a variety of ways and environments, especially when it comes to their ability to support customization through their standardized modules, such as servos, motors, drives, sensors, computers and attachments.

MHI member Cimcorp has implemented a fleet of AGVs at a client’s tire-manufacturing plant to speed up production. During the curing process, pressure is applied to the green tire in a mold to give it its final shape, and heat stimulates the chemical reaction between the rubber compounds and other materials. The tire factory is using AGVs to deliver tires from a large buffering system to as many as 250 distinct points in the curing area, and the fleet management system assigns each trip to an individual AGV.

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Leading manufacturing and supply chain executives agree that technology is the key to future success. As they digitize their supply chains they are generating more data than ever before, giving them the power to leverage that data to see their businesses in new ways and to make better decisions. These early adopters are creating real and measurable competitive advantage. When it comes to technology investment start small but think big. Build on your successes and learn from your failures. By investing wisely, you’ll create additional value in your supply chain and widen your advantage over the competition.

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