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Focus: Manufacturing

Feature Article from Our Manufacturing Subject Area - See All

From SCDigest's On-Target E-Magazine

- Augus 14, 2013 -

Supply Chain News: New Roles for AGVs in Manufacturing?


Delivery of Kits from Parts Supermarkets Emerging as Key New Application; Flexibility of New AGV Systems Now Enables Dynamic Delivery Routes


SCDigest Editorial Staff

Manufacturing, especially in the automotive sector, sector, has long been the primary market for automated guided vehicles, or AGVs.

In the past, however, most AGV deployments were for long-haul, static moves, say from the inbound receiving area to a materials storage area.

SCDigest Says:


The beauty of these more flexible AGVs is also that they can often be piloted in a facility at relatively low cost.

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But two trends are coming together to open up some additional applications for use of AGVs, specifically in discrete manufacturing sectors. Those two trends are:

1. Increased use of so-called part and component "supermarkets," in which needed parts and supplies are "kitted' (typically into a bin or tote) for delivery to manufacturing lines or cells.

2. Substantially more flexibility from some newer AGVs vendors that allow for more dynamic routing.

While the parts "supermarket" concept has been around for decades, and really was a central part of the original Toyota Production System, experts say it has only really gained traction in the US in the last few years outside the auto sector. Many manufacturing facilities continue to store parts and components in multiple areas throughout the production site.

In a traditional supermarket approach, a fork truck driver would pick up a group of kitted bins and deliver them in the most efficient sequence to production centers needing the parts. For static routes, sometimes a simple tugger (a form of AGV) might be used, but not for dynamic routes.

Alternatively, manual moves might be used, with a a simple cart being pushed or pulled by a floor worker.

But as the cost of many recent AGV systems goes down while the flexibility goes up, a growing number of manufacturers are starting to see if an automated approach to this repetitive materials movement task might not be the better system.

According to a recent press release from AGV maker Seegrid, American Packaging Corporation was recently able to reduce its material handling labor hours by 19% through this precise type of application using Seegrid AGVs.


Example Parts Supermarket in Manufacturing Layout



Source: Marek on Lean Blog



As with any sort of automation, the benefits and ROI really start to go up when a company is running multiple shifts, as the investment in an AGV for delivering the kits can be leveraged perhaps 24 x 7.

(Manufacturing Article Continued Below)



New AGV Capabilities Make Additional Applications Possible

The new age AGVs in the market offer capabilities that can extend the potential use of the robots in manufacturing sites. This additional flexibility is also why the market is finally starting to see some adoption of AGV technology in distribution centers, where movement paths are obviously much more dynamic than they typically are in manufacturing applications.

Some AGVs, such as those produced by Seegrid, no longer depend on tape on the floor or other sort of fixed approach to travelling around a facility. In Seegrid's case, it uses a unique optical technology in which the AGVs learn where they needs to go. That flexibility means a Seegrid robot could travel from the kitting area to different lines or cells dynamically, based on the most efficient path or what the priority is for kit delivery, based on integration with an MES or other shop floor system.

Isn't that dynamic path and a moving robot a source of safety concerns? In Seegrid's case the answer is No, because the optical system can literally see people or objects in its path, stopping itself until the obstacle is gone.

This kind of flexibility is also enabling new distribution applications, such as automated pallet jacks that move with a worker as he or she moves down a pick aisle, negating the need to get on and off the truck, and then the AGV automatically taking the picked pallet to staging or shrink wrap station after an order is completed.

The beauty of these more flexible AGVs is also that they can often be piloted in a facility at relatively low cost.

"Like everything in material handling, the migration and adoption of AGVs in these new applications is slow, because companies are cautious," says Cliff Holste, SCDigest's materials handling editor. "But today, that job of moving part kits to product lines really can be automated, and is consistent in my view with Lean principles in manufacturing."

Another factor is that for much of the 2000s, companies were reluctant to make investments in US manufacturing plants, over concern the work might soon go offshore.

But with the recent trends towards reshoring and keeping production in the US (e.g., NCR, Whirlpool, GE, etc.), many firms are starting to rethink that perspective - and AGVs are increasingly likely to be part of the mix.


Do you see AGVs as a good choice for kit delivery? Why or why not? What are the key factors?
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