What’s an AGV?
William Shakespeare famously asked: “What’s in a name?” Now, no one will ever confuse me with the Bard of Avon, but I’d like to pose a similar question: What’s an AGV?
I know it stands for automatic guided vehicle, but as I wrote last month after Crown introduced a remote control pallet truck, the lines between AGV’s, lift trucks and mobile robots are beginning to blur.
Is a Kiva or RMT mobile unit an AGV or a robot? What about one of Seegrid’s machines or Egemin’s new hybrid machine?
I was thinking about this at the end of a call today with Carl Beck, vice president of business development, and Becky Swann, a product manager, with Inro.
If you’ve never heard of Inro, you’re not alone. Founded in 2010, the company is a 30-person technology venture in Auckland, New Zealand, with a great back story, intriguing technology, an impressive backer and some ambition.
First, the technology. Inro provides “forklift-based automation solutions to warehouse operators,” says Beck. “We’re an alternative to AGVs whereby we fit robotics to a standard forklift model.” A forklift using Inro’s technology can operate manually, like a traditional truck. Or, it can operate in an automated mode like an AGV. Inro has developed a proprietary guidance system that uses information about the operating environment that is collected by the laser safety bumper, rather than reflectors, to guide the vehicles. Inro says they travel at a speed of 3 meters per second.
Next, the back story. The company’s roots go back to 2005, when a group of postgraduate students at the University of Auckland developed an automated four-wheel drive vehicle to compete in the DARPA Grand Challenge race for autonomous vehicles. “The students were approaching graduation and didn’t want to leave the country to get a job,” says Swann. “They started asking how they could create a robotics industry in New Zealand that would allow them to use their skills here.”
The group connected with The ICEHOUSE, a business incubator for start-ups supported by The University of Auckland Business School, The Boston Consulting Group, Telecom and Gen-i, BNZ, Ernst & Young, HP, and Microsoft. There, they were provided with some seed money, office space and business coaching as they developed a business plan with a goal of commercializing their technology.
The impressive backer is Fonterra Co-Operative Group, a major exporter of dairy products and one of New Zealand’s largest companies. In 2007, Inro partnered with Fonterra to retrofit two conventional forklifts in one of its dairies that can operate in an automated or conventional environment. That led to Inro securing the largest round of angel funding in New Zealand history with support from Fonterra.
With that first two-vehicle solution up and running, Inro is in the process of developing a solution for a Fonterra distribution center in Hamilton, New Zealand that will integrate 7 automated reach trucks with a pallet shuttle system that services very deep pallet rack, with lanes about 25 pallets deep. “The goal was to create an AS/RS without the expense of an AS/RS,” says Swann. Next up is the company’s first customer outside the Fonterra family, a 3PL in Australia that will use the trucks in conjunction with single deep pallet rack.
The ambition? Inro thinks it’s onto something – an alternative to AGVs that provides flexible and cost-effective automation. “Rather than create a purpose-built vehicle, our idea is to automate existing vehicles that can be useful in a number of applications,” says Beck. “By automating a standard fork lift, you get the advantages of the OEM networks, their manufacturing scale and their customer support systems.” To that end, Inro would like to develop a partnership with one of the major lift truck OEMs.
Now, this concept is not entirely unique and Inro does have competition. As we wrote last August, Danaher has developed technology to transform a lift truck into an AGV. Moreover, it has partnered with automation suppliers to create a complete picking solution. And Egemin is introducing its hybrid AGV at Promat as well as a lift truck partner. But, if Inro succeeds, the company will be a great example of a partnership between our industry, the academic community and the end user community.
“We’re in the roll out phase now,” says Beck. “We’ve done the difficult part, which is to develop and test the technology. Now, we’re working to acquire a high level number of business prospects with whom we can build a relationship and do a number of sites. And we’re working to get closer to the forklift manufacturers who may see us as a way of protecting their markets from the encroachment of AGVs. Perhaps we are the next thing on their radar.”
So, is Inro’s solution an AGV or a lift truck? I’m still not sure.