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Automation: What is an AGV?

If you think AGVs, or automatic guided vehicles, are a mature technology, think again. Since 2005, the industry has seen an unparalleled level of innovation.
By Bob Trebilcock, Executive Editor
June 01, 2011

ProMat 2009: New players
Think Toyota Material Handling USA and you probably think world’s largest lift truck manufacturer. Think SI Systems, and you probably think manufacturing systems, including tow line vehicles.

But if you attended ProMat 2009, you saw something different at both companies’ booths: automatic guided carts. 

The technology was not new. However, the entrance of two new players not previously identified with AGVs or carts said something about how the market was evolving. And while different catalysts sparked the interest of these two companies in automatic vehicles, at the end of the day, both companies entered the field because the needs of their customers were evolving.

SI Systems, for instance, realized that in some assembly applications, a fleet of AGCs was more economical than a towline assembly system. “When you have a vehicle-intense system, few decision points and a lot of work in process, a tow line system makes a lot of sense,” says executive account manager Craig Sleep. “But in smaller assembly systems, we were losing business to carts.” What’s more, they began to see other companies installing carts for line-side delivery in plants where SI Systems was installing a towline. “We had never gotten into line-side delivery before, but we saw an opportunity to offer a more complete solution.” There were even opportunities to combine the two technologies, for instance, using a cart to pick up a fixture at the end of the towline and deliver it to a kitting area.

Toyota, meanwhile, had exhibited its first AGV at ProMat in 2007. The Toyota Tug-Cart Mouse AGV was already being used throughout Toyota manufacturing plants to take subassemblies from one part of the plant to the main assembly line. By 2009, Toyota had expanded the product line to include the L-Cart, a system that allows an end user to use a variety of components to create a cart that fits its needs, almost like an erector kit. Toyota devoted more floor space and offered AGV demonstrations at its booth in 2009, sending a message that it was as serious about AGVs as it is about lift trucks.

In Toyota’s view, AGVs are a complement to its lift truck business, not competition. “We do not believe it’s enough to just be a lift truck salesperson,” says Martin Boyd, vice president of marketing and product planning. “We want to help you apply the Toyota Production System philosophy to your plant and see where you might benefit from automation. AGVs allow us to get our foot in the door to start that conversation.”

In 2009, Toyota also began working with AutoGuide Systems, which developed a plug-and-play kit that converts a Toyota Class III tugger vehicle into an AGV. At the end of the lease, the kit can be removed and installed on the next leased tugger. “We now have plans in motion to apply that technology to more models in our product line,” says Boyd.

“To say that we’re optimistic about this is an understatement,” Boyd adds. “We see big things on the horizon for lift trucks and AGVs.”

ProMat 2011: Turning lift trucks into AGVs
Toyota may have started the conversation about turning lift trucks into AGVs, but the discussion continues.

That was made clear at ProMat 2011, where the talk of the show was the new vehicles introduced by Dematic and Egemin. Both vehicles are aimed squarely at the distribution center.

Built in conjunction with Crown, Dematic took a solutions-based approach to case picking similar to what Kiva is doing with piece picking. The solution combines a pallet truck with voice recognition technology and order fulfillment software to automate the case-picking process: A voice-directed order selector picks cases to a pallet on the pallet truck; once the pallet is full, the pallet truck is automatically directed to the next step in the process, which could be another pick zone or a drop-off location in the shipping area.

Egemin, meanwhile, teamed up with MCFA to create a hybrid pallet-handling AGV. Turn the key one direction and it can be operated like a traditional lift truck. Turn the key in the other direction, and it operates as a fully automated, conventional AGV with trailer loading and unloading capabilities.

While they were designed for different purposes, the two vehicles share a common vision: The AGV OEMs are providing the navigation technology and automation software while the lift truck OEMs are bringing to bear the quality, reliability and economies of scale that come from mass production along with a nationwide dealer network that can service the mechanical systems of the lift truck.

“Flexibility is a selling point,” says Egemin’s Stevens. “But the value is the lower total cost of ownership that comes from a mass produced lift truck, using off-the-shelf parts that can be serviced by a local network of dealers.

Dematic sees this as an entrée into the distribution market. “We are all trying to move AGVs from manufacturing into distribution,” says Scott Hinke, vice president of product sales. “That’s where we believe there is a good return for our customers.”

While Dematic is beginning with case picking, it has plans to roll out other automated lift trucks as part of its “Automate the Conventional” approach to warehousing. “We can focus on the controls, the smarts and the order fulfillment solutions while the lift truck manufacturer can lower the manufacturing and service cost,” says Hinke. “We think the customer will see this as less of a risk.”

If the market now consists of two classes of vehicles—conventional AGVs as well as carts and mobile robots represented by Seegrid, Kiva and RMT—some in the industry, like Claude Imbleau, chief financial officer for Transbotics, see the potential for a third class of hybrid vehicles. “There will always be a market for specialized vehicles that will be made by AGV manufacturers like Transbotics,” Imbleau says. “However, if we can provide the software and the lift truck manufacturers can deliver the quality that we need, it makes sense to have them make every day vehicles, like a fork vehicle.”

In fact, it seems as if nearly everyone in the AGV and lift truck industry has simultaneously had a similar idea.

Kollmorgen, a provider of navigation and automation software to AGV manufacturers now offers the technology to end users who can have the solution installed on their lift trucks at the factory or retrofit an existing fleet of lift trucks.

INRO, a New Zealand-based startup, is taking a similar approach, with software and technology to automate conventional lift trucks.

In May, Raymond signed a sales agreement with Seegrid to develop an automated lift truck powered by Seegrid’s navigation software in North America. At CeMat, Linde was promoting similar vehicles for Europe. 

JBT’s Longacre is right when he points out that the two industries did this dance 10 years ago to no avail. At the same time, a number of computer manufacturers, including Microsoft, tried to introduce tablets a decade ago without success. Today, thanks to a confluence of events, including the iPad, tablets are the hottest piece of technology on the market.

Whether this is the AGV market’s iPad moment and these new vehicles will be embraced by the market is yet to be seen. But it’s clear that the evolution of the AGV market will not stop any time soon. 

Companies interviewed for this article
Daifuku Webb Holding Co.
Egemin Automation,
JBT Corporation,
Kiva Systems,
Mitsubishi Caterpillar Forklift America,
Murata Machinery USA,
RMT Robotics,
The Raymond Corp.,
Savant Automation,
SI Systems,
Toyota Material Handling USA,

About the Author

Bob Trebilcock
Executive Editor

Bob Trebilcock, executive editor, has covered materials handling, technology and supply chain topics for Modern Materials Handling since 1984. More recently, Trebilcock became editorial director of Supply Chain Management Review. A graduate of Bowling Green State University, Trebilcock lives in Keene, NH. He can be reached at 603-357-0484.

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About the Author

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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