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Is the AGV of the future a lift truck?

I have seen the future of the materials handling industry and it looks a lot like …. a lift truck …. or an AGV ….
By Bob Trebilcock, Executive Editor
March 22, 2011

Okay, the above is a totally gratuitous sentence designed to grab your attention. Think of it as the materials handling equivalent of the blazing red XXX sign in the windows on the old 42nd Street. But I did attend two press conferences at ProMat on Tuesday that I think point to a future trend.

The first was the introduction of LaserTrucks+ by Dematic (http://www.dematic.com) and Crown Equipment (http://www.crown.com) at Dematic’s booth (Booth 3603). The LaserTrucks+ looks like a rider pallet truck. Indeed, it’s built on the Crown PC 4500 Series of trucks. In reality, it’s an integrated carton picking solution that applies Dematic’s automatic guided vehicle guidance technology to a Crown rider pallet truck and then layers Dematic voice picking software on top. What you end up with is a vehicle that can be automatically directed to a picking zone, automatically indexed to the next picking location within that zone as the associate is directed by the voice system to complete his picks, and then get automatically routed to the next assignment for the vehicle – whether that’s to another pick zone to complete the picks for a pallet, a drop off location, a stretch wrapper or the shipping dock.

In addition to introducing an alliance between an AGV supplier and a lift truck OEM, something akin to cats and dogs becoming best buds, it’s also an example of how the acquisition of HK Systems by Dematic last fall may play out in the future. Last summer, before the acquisition, Dematic was talking to Danaher about applying its automatic vehicle guidance technology to a lift truck to create a pick-to-pallet solution. But with the acquisition of HK Systems, Dematic had the technology in-house. “This is an example of why we bought HK and talked about the complement of having AGVs in our portfolio,” John Baysore, Dematic’s North American president, told me.

An hour after the Dematic press conference ended, I attended another event where Egemin Automation (http://www.egeminusa.com) (booth 2347) and Mitsubishi Caterpillar Forklift America (http://www.mcfa.com) were introducing something they termed a hybrid automated guided vehicle. In this instance, MCFA was applying Egemin’s automated guidance technology to its 3,500 and 5,500 pound lifting capacity lift trucks. Instead of pick-to-pallet, Egemin is going after full pallet movements between manufacturing cells, or from the end of the manufacturing line to a putaway location in the warehouse or the shipping dock. Same concept, different application.

As with Dematic and Crown, Egemin and MCFA are teeming up to create a product that combines the best of an AGV with the advantages of a production lift truck, such as economies of scale (MCFA and Crown make a lot more lift trucks than Egemin or Dematic make AGVs) and extensive dealer and distributor networks to provide repair parts and maintenance services. “For 25 years, customers have been asking us why we can’t put a control box on a fork lift,” Mark Stevenson, Egemin’s vice president of business development said. “Egemin finally said the two technologies are close enough. Let’s do it”

Beyond that, Stevenson said Egemin wanted to bring standardization and familiarity to the AGV market. “The lift truck is the most familiar materials handling component in the supply chain,” he said. “You get a market size and scale with a lift truck that you just cannot get as a manufacturer of AGVs.”

There’s one important difference between the Egemin and Dematic approach: the Egemin hybrid vehicle can be operated in a manual mode, like any other lift truck, or completely automated mode, like any other AGV, with the turn of the ignition key. The Dematic vehicle can only be operated manually in an emergency.

Will the market embrace either of these new vehicles? I have no idea. But they are among the most exciting new technologies I’ve seen at the show.

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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