AGVs, carts and robots

Call them robots, AGVs or carts. But first call them solutions.

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What’s in a name? That which we call a rose
By any other name would smell as sweet. … William Shakespeare

The caller on the line got right to the point. “I read your robot story,” he said. “So tell me: Is an AGV a robot? And is an automatic cart an AGV?”

It’s an interesting question. It’s also one that I think the materials handling industry should be thinking about as more customers look to automation, including some type of automated vehicle, for targeted solutions in the warehouse. Example: Our October cover story will feature a Del Monte distribution center in Topkea, Kansas, using nearly 40 automatic guide vehicles from Elettric 80 (http://www.elettric80.com) for receiving, put away and picking pallets. I’ve seen a number of manufacturing plants using that many AGVs, but I’ve never written about that many in a DC.

So, what’s in a name?

Here’s the short answer. As far as I’m concerned, an automatic cart is a type of an AGV and an AGV is a type of robot. But don’t take my word for it. Here’s what Mark Longacre, marketing manager for JBT Corporation (http://www.jbtc-agv.com), a manufacturer of AGVs, told me when I was writing the August special report on robots. “We definitely consider ourselves a mobile robot. We’re obviously not a fixed, mounted robot, but we adapt to the working environment and we are totally unmanned. For instance, as an AGV manufacturer, we’re working with the integrated robotics and automated storage and retrieval people to extend their solutions to automatically loading the trailer.”

The kicker: JBT is a member of the Robotics Industries Association (http://www.robotics.org). 

Still, there are these distinctions made in the market place. In part, I think it arises because both AGVs and industrial robots carry some baggage. You know the old saying that early adopters bleed? Early adopters of both technologies have war stories to tell. The result is that robotics providers would rather not be associated with AGVs and vice versa, even though both technologies have pretty good stories to tell – just ask Del Monte.

I think, in part, it’s also because there were once divisions about who manufactured and sold the technologies. Take AGVs. Not that long ago, lift truck companies provided lift trucks, conveyor companies provided conveyors and AGV OEMs provided AGVs.

It’s a different world today. Toyota Material Handling (http://www.toyotaforklift.com), the world’s largest lift truck manufacturer, also provides light duty AGVs. So does SI Systems (http://www.sipasystems.com/), which is known for conveyor systems and tow-line vehicles in manufacturing operations. Both companies want to help you move your stuff from point A to point B with the best solution for your problem.

And, there’s a new world of options. Along with AGVs, Jervis B. Webb (http://www.jervisbwebb.com/) provides “smart” carts, also known as automatic guided carts (AGCs). Widely adopted by the automotive industry, they’re really light duty, stripped down AGVs even if Webb calls them a cart.

RMT Robotics (http://www.rmtrobotics.com/) calls its mobile robots iAGVs – with the I standing for “Intelligent.” Watch them work and they look a lot like a miniaturized version of Webb’s carts but with a different navigation system.

Kiva Systems (http://www.kivasystems.com) refers to the vehicles in its system as “robotic drive units,” but really, they are directed to their next stop by location tags in the floor, much like…  wait for it …… a light duty AGV.

Meanwhile, I’ve talked to end users who insist that they don’t have AGVs, they have LGVs – a term that a few vendors have come up with for an AGV that uses a laser guided navigation system versus another guidance system. The fact that some end users think they have AGCs while others have LGVs and still others have mobile robots is a triumph of marketing. But at the end of the day, it’s confusing to the market that is going to use automation solutions.

Call them carts, AGVs or mobile robots, what’s most important is that thanks to better electronics and advances in software, what the industry is really selling today is a solution to a materials handling conundrum, rather than a technology. For instance, what makes the Del Monte AGVs successful is that they’re tied into the DC’s warehouse management system; what makes a Kiva order fulfillment system work in the Office Depot DC we put on August’s cover is how well it integrates with the rest of what’s going on in that distribution center; and a Webb cart synchs up with the just-in-time, just-in-sequence strategies in place to keep an automotive assembly line humming. Those solutions, by any other name, would smell as sweet.


About the Author

Bob Trebilcock
Bob Trebilcock, editorial director, has covered materials handling, technology, logistics and supply chain topics for nearly 30 years. In addition to Supply Chain Management Review, he is also Executive Editor of Modern Materials Handling. A graduate of Bowling Green State University, Trebilcock lives in Keene, NH. He can be reached at 603-357-0484.

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