AGVs gain respect
Anyone who has followed the evolution of materials handling equipment understands that automatic guided vehicles are certainly not the new kids on the block. They first hit the floor more than 60 years ago under the name “driverless vehicle,” and thus began the long and arduous process of winning the respect of manufacturing and distribution managers looking to apply lean processes to improve productivity.
During those early years they were expensive (more than $100,000 per unit), could only take one fixed path using wires, they’re weren’t very smart, and the sheer size of their batteries relegated them to mostly simple tasks like towing carts back and forth between pre-assigned locations.
But as time marched on, AGV suppliers knew that they needed to design and upgrade the functionality to mimic the operational abilities of a human being—since the original idea was to relieve humans from the tedium of moving materials from point A to point B so they could concentrate on more value-added tasks. And by all of our reports, those suppliers have succeed.
As contributing editor Maida Napolitano reported last month in her article “Seven fresh ways to think about AGVs,” over the past 10 years, AGV suppliers, with the help of development partners and the input of end users, have greatly decreased battery size while improving energy output and upgrading circuit boards. They have also applied traffic management software and sensors to make the equipment smarter, more reliable, and much less expensive.
We’re now beginning to seen entire manufacturing operations being revolutionized by the application of AGVs and their first cousins, including automatic guided carts (AGCs), automatic guided tuggers (AGTs), and autonomous mobile robots (AMRs) that use lasers and vision systems to learn the layout of your facility free of any fixed path.
In fact, just a few months ago, executive editor Bob Trebilcock took us inside John Deere’s 5.9-million-square-foot manufacturing facility in Waterloo, Iowa, where the company has applied 35 AGVs to create a flexible, mobile assembly line that created a safer working environment and improved quality.
This month, Trebilcock takes us inside the Toyota Motor Manufacturing, Kentucky (TMMK) facility to get a glimpse at one of the most innovative applications of AGVs we’ve seen to date. Over the past six years, Paul Stafford, the facility’s AGV implementation engineering lead, has rolled out more than 100 AGVs to transport raw metal parts and finished subassembly components through its 7.5-million-square-foot assembly plant in Georgetown.
But the most intriguing part of TMMK’s story is that its now putting five different types of AGVs—including man-operated tuggers that were converted to AGTs—to work, resulting in a huge boost to productivity, millions in savings, and allowing 42 staff members to move into more value-added positions.
“On top of the labor management piece of this story, what impressed me most was the way that TMMK brought together several different kinds of AGV technologies to address their materials handling needs,” says Trebilcock. “What’s more, the conversion of conventional, man-operated tuggers into automatic vehicles makes this facility truly unique.”