Automation with AGVs Why is this technology in demand like never before?

Automated guided vehicles (AGVs) have been around for several decades. But the big breakthrough has been a long time coming. Numerous recent leaps in technological development and increasingly affordable sensor technology have changed this. As a result, automated guided vehicles (AGVs) are increasingly becoming a widespread and sometimes central service provider, especially in production supply processes.

In today's blog post, we explain why the importance of these clever helpers in the material flow, also known as AGVs (Automated Guided Vehicles), is so undisputed, when and for whom their use is worthwhile, which prerequisites must be met for integration, and which advantages arise in detail. In this context, we would also like to explain why AGVs should not be directly equated with AMRs (Autonomous Mobile Robots) - terms that are often used synonymously in the context of AGVs.

The most important questions at a glance:

AGVs (Automated Guided Vehicles) are floor-mounted vehicles that automatically transport goods to specified destinations. They can be easily integrated into existing process structures, represent a scalable solution, relieve the burden on humans and ensure an uninterrupted flow of materials, even in 24/7 operation if required.

AGVs are suitable when a company's particular business model does not call for continuous peak performance, such as is required for low-volume items classified as fast-moving items in e-commerce. AGVs, on the other hand, serve lower to medium throughput requirements that are not subject to large fluctuations.

AGVs are not autonomous per se, but follow predefined route patterns. The degree of autonomy increases with the ability to navigate independently, avoid obstacles, communicate with other vehicles in the fleet and organize themselves without human intervention.

What are the key features of an AGV (Automated Guided Vehicle)?

An AGV (Automated Guided Vehicle) is a floor-mounted vehicle that is used to transport goods and does not require an operator. AGVs can also be flexibly integrated into existing infrastructures and, if necessary, expanded to form a fleet. In this way, individual process steps can be successively automated. AGVs are equipped with reflectors and intelligent sensors and navigate safely through a defined route network via markings or induction loops. The load carriers are picked up by add-on modules such as gripping devices adapted to the load. Alternatively, stationary or roller, chain or belt conveyors are used for load transfer.

Ideally, the entire process is controlled using state-of-the-art standard software for warehouse management and material flow control, such as SAP Extended Warehouse Management(SAP EWM) in conjunction with the SAP Material Flow System(SAP MFS).

What do AGVs do in the production environment?

Production supply processes are still strongly characterized by forklift-assisted transports and manual, repetitive processes. But this picture is changing. Instead, more and more AGVs (Automated Guided Vehicles) are taking over tasks that were previously performed by humans. Employees are relieved of monotonous and sometimes heavy work and can concentrate on more important (control) tasks. The ongoing shortage of skilled workers is also compensated for, as AGVs can be deployed at any time in 24/7 operation without the need for lengthy pre-planning. They also ensure a smooth flow of materials without the stop-and-go that is otherwise typical in many cases. Resources are thus optimally utilized and system performance remains constant. Delivery commitments can be met.

Another positive effect is that AGVs increase the efficiency of production supply processes and lead to permanent cost savings. The entry into (partial) automation that goes hand in hand with AGVs also means that there are no more forklift-related accidents that can cause damage to people, goods and equipment, such as rows of racks.

AGVs vs. conveyor technology - which solution is suitable for whom?

Although the use of AGVs in the production environment requires sufficient space to drive over, their operating radius requires significantly less space than permanently installed conveyor technology routes. Although companies can transport much larger quantities of goods using conveyor technology than is possible with AGVs, they are limited in their flexibility. Consequently, AGVs are more suitable for lower to medium throughputs and, thanks to their scalability in terms of numbers, can be adapted to changing process requirements at any time without great effort.

Conversely, expanding conveyor technology is very costly, time-consuming and often not even feasible due to spatial restrictions. If you are considering the use of AGVs, it is therefore advisable to analyze in detail what performance capacity is currently required and what performance capacity will be required over a planned horizon (extrapolated to year X).

A question of autonomy - what distinguishes AGVs from AMRs?

It is true that AGVs by definition fulfill the classification as automated transport vehicles. However, "by their very nature," they do not automatically function autonomously because they follow predefined routes. However, the degree of autonomy is steadily increasing: AGV variants already exist that travel completely freely, independently choose the most appropriate direct route, and autonomously avoid unexpected stationary or mobile obstacles. These capabilities are comparable to those more commonly attributed to so-called AMRs (Autonomous Mobile Robots), which communicate and self-organize among themselves - a first stage of swarm intelligence in the context of the end-to-end networked Industry 4.0.

Since AMRs carry their on-board navigation with them, no complex programming is required; instead, the plug-and-play principle takes effect. Artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning (ML) are already integral components, but will become even more important in the future so that processes in production and logistics can be aligned even more efficiently.

Conclusion and outlook

Companies that want to (partially) automate their production supply processes and at the same time make them more flexible - attention: no contradiction! - are therefore well advised to subject AGVs to a mental suitability test. The focus should always be on process reliability and economic efficiency.

One argument in favor of these automated transport aids, which relieve the burden on humans, is that AGVs enable an entry into automation at a manageable cost and that the return on investment (ROI) is achieved comparatively quickly. AGVs reduce dependency on hard-to-recruit employees, are available 24/7 and stabilize the flow of materials so that production supply processes can be handled much more efficiently. In addition, their number can be increased step by step if processes need to be adapted to changing customer and/or market requirements. The latter also applies to sustained corporate growth. In view of these advantages, not only is demand increasing: the supply of AGVs on the international markets is also growing unceasingly.

Which variant and which degree of autonomy are best suited to a company's production logistics is always an individual decision. Manufacturer independence is a criterion that allows an objective consideration, independent of the economic interests of individual suppliers. Contact us, the IGZ team will be happy to help you!

You can find more information on this topic in the blog post "How do robots pay off in warehouse logistics?