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Automated Guided Vehicles

The Right Material Handling Solution for your Business?

Are you new to automated guided vehicles (AGVs)? This guide explains what AGVs are and how they work. It also explores the benefits AGVs offer businesses, and what you should consider before investing in the technology.

What are Automated Guided Vehicles (AGVs)?

An automated guided vehicle or AGV is a mobile robot. AGVs follow a series of predetermined instructions, cues or signals (depending on the type of navigation technology they use) to move around and complete actions, such as picking up or dropping off materials.

AGVs are a safe, efficient and cost-effective transportation solution. They suit warehousing (intralogistics) and manufacturing operations, or any other applications that require repetitive material handling tasks to be completed in a timely manner.

Note: AGVs are sometimes referred to as automatic guided vehicles or autonomous guided vehicles.

“Automated guided vehicles (AGVs) represent the largest fraction in the professional service robot market (41% of all units sold). They are established in non-manufacturing environments, mainly logistics, and have lots of potential in manufacturing.” Dr. Nicola Tomatis
CEO, BlueBotics

Automated guided vehicle applications

AGVs can benefit any application that requires the repetitive, timely and safe movement of goods or materials. Automated guided vehicles typically perform jobs that would have previously been carried out by human-driven forklifts, manual carts, pallet jacks, and conveyor systems.

What do AGVs transport?

Automated guided vehicles are used to transport:

  • Raw materials
    When staging, AGVs might move materials from the warehouse to production or assembly lines.
  • Work-in-process
    During the assembly process, AGVs are used to move semi-finished goods from one work station to the next.
  • Finished products
    Finished goods might be transported back to the warehouse or directly to shipping.
AGV applications
Automated guided vehicles can move raw materials, work-in-progress as well as finished products.

 

What are the most common AGV applications?

Automated guided vehicles are used across many different types of industrial sites, such as:

  • Manufacturing facilities
    AGVs are common in automotive production and increasingly in high-tech electronics manufacturing. AGV technology is also being adopted across a wider range of manufacturing sectors, such as packaging, paper and printing, food and beverage, packaging, pharmaceutical, heavy industries and more.

    BlueBotics Durr Paint Shop AGV
    AGVs are common in automotive production, such as this Dürr EcoProFleet vehicle, a solution designed exclusively to operate in paint shops.
  • Warehouses (intralogistics)
    AGVs are a key component of supply chain automation. According to numerous market studies, the adoption of AGVs in warehousing is expected to grow hugely in the coming years, even more so than in manufacturing.

    Nipper AGV in warehouse
    Nipper pallet truck AGVs by F3-Design at work in a U.S. warehouse.
  • Distribution & fulfilment centers
    With the explosion of e-commerce, huge and fully automated distribution and fulfilment centers are being built from the ground up, creating massive demand for automated vehicles. Autonomous mobile robots are also often employed for order picking.

    Ansorix AGV

  • Hospitals
    Hospital AGVs such as those by Italian producer OPPENT are used to optimize on-site logistics, transporting everything from bed linen to meals, medication, PPE and waste material.

    Oppent hospital AGV
    EVOcart AGVs by OPPENT transport linen and waste in a hospital in Italy.

How do automated guided vehicles work?

Automated guided vehicles travel along a pre-determined route or path. This path can be physical (e.g. marked on the floor with magnetic tape or tags) or virtual (programmed through the AGV's navigation software).

An AGV’s position and its movement are calculated and controlled using a combination of software (such as ANT lab) and sensors (such as LiDAR-based laser scanners).

Advanced AGVs can work alone or as part of a larger connected fleet. AGV fleet management software (such as ANT server) is used to schedule tasks, distribute these between vehicles, and control traffic.

How are AGVs powered?

Although early generation AGVs often used diesel power, these days automated vehicles are almost always battery powered. Many use automatic charging stations, meaning they do not need to be plugged in manually.

What is the speed of a typical AGV?

An AGV’s speed is a fine balance between achieving optimal efficiency (maximizing the number of missions per shift) and making sure the vehicle is safe (ensuring optimum stopping distances). Most AGVs on the market today reach speeds of up to 1.5 m/s (3.3 mph). Vehicles that are driven by ANT navigation can drive up to 3.5 m/s (7.8 mph). With some vehicles and applications even faster speeds are possible, but safety must always remain the priority.

What types of AGV steering are available?

There are many different types of AGV steering. The most common are shown below.

What types of AGV software are used?

Two main types of software are used when installing and operating AGVs:

  1. Configuration software
  2. Mission & fleet management software

Configuration software

Configuration software is mainly used by vehicle makers and integrators, for example, when commissioning (installing) AGVs at a customer site.

 

BlueBotics configuration software

This software is used to calibrate the vehicle before it starts working, to map the site, and to program the vehicle’s routes and actions (such as moving its forks). An example is ANT lab software by BlueBotics, which is used to program ANT driven vehicles.

Mission & fleet management software

By contrast, mission and fleet management software is used by operators (end users) to manage and optimize their on-site AGV operations.

 

Mission fleet software

This software typically offers features such as:

  • Mission simulation (for testing before deployment)
  • Mission scheduling
  • Fleet monitoring
  • Charging management
  • AGV traffic control

This type of software, such as ANT server, can also interface via API with equipment such as elevators and automatic doors, and a site’s existing business software (e.g. WMS, MES, ERP).

Types of AGV navigation technology

Automated guided vehicles typically move around by following pre-defined paths or routes. Different AGV navigation methods accomplish this in different ways, but generally speaking two main methods exist:

  1. Following virtual or digital paths that exist only in the vehicle’s software
  2. Following physical lines (line following) or tags on the ground

Physical path following

Physical line following

 

Automated vehicles that follow physical lines of some sort have been in use for several decades.

With line following types of AGV navigation, vehicles are literally guided through the facility by a physical line, such as:

 

  • Magnetic tape
  • Inductive wire (installed in or under the floor)
  • Painted lines
  • Tags (spaced intermittently in a line)

In the case of a tape-following AGV for instance, this features a downward-facing sensor that ‘looks’ at a line on the floor. It then measures the left and right error, and corrects the vehicle’s trajectory as needed. Tag following works in a similar way.

Virtual path following

Virtual path following

 

Automated vehicles that follow virtual paths are newer. There are several types of virtual path following technology, the key difference between them being how they calculate the position of the vehicle (localization).

These technologies include:

 

  • Laser triangulation (also called laser guidance)
  • Vision guidance (also called optical navigation)
  • Natural navigation (also called free navigation or SLAM navigation)

Laser triangulation uses references in the form of permanently-installed reflective targets to triangulate the position of the vehicle. It does this by firing beams around the space from a laser scanner installed on the vehicle. As its name implies, at least three targets must be recognized at any one time.

Vision guidance uses cameras to recognize features in the environment. These features are then compared to a 3D map in order for the vehicle to calculate its position and navigate effectively.

Natural navigation uses data from a vehicle’s laser scanners (often the AGV’s safety scanners) to calculate the vehicle’s position. It does this by comparing or ‘matching’ the laser scanner data to either: the cells of a grid-based 2D reference map of the environment (scan matching), or permanent map references like walls (natural feature navigation).

Business impact of different AGV navigation technologies

An AGV’s navigation technology has a significant impact on how quickly and easily a vehicle can be installed and operated on-site.

The installation of line following- and laser triangulation-based AGVs, for example, requires fairly significant changes to a site’s infrastructure (e.g., laying tape or installing reflective targets), while technologies such as natural feature navigation do not require any permanent changes to a site.

These differences affect installation timings. Line or tag following AGV installations, for instance, might take several weeks to configure, whereas AGV projects based on vision guidance or natural navigation could be up and running in just a few days.

When choosing AGV technology, it is also important to consider the future scalability of your fleet. Virtual path following technologies are much more suited to advanced fleet management, in particular traffic control, than older physical technologies.

How accurate are AGVs?

Accuracy

When an AGV is picking, dropping, or docking to recharge, high accuracy is required. The level of AGV precision possible is a direct result of a vehicle’s positioning accuracy.

This accuracy varies from vehicle to vehicle, but as an example, most ANT driven AGVs are capable of achieving a positioning accuracy of ±1 cm and ±1°, sometimes better. This is more than precise enough for the majority of intralogistics and production applications.

Are AGVs safe?

Yes. Automated guided vehicles are significantly safer than their human-driven counterparts.

Compared to AGVs, manual forklift trucks have a much higher level of recorded accidents and incidents. In fact, over the average eight-year lifespan of a manual forklift, about 90% of these vehicles will be involved in some type of accident.

By contrast, with automated guided vehicles the incident level is virtually zero. In rare cases where AGVs have been involved in accidents, this is often due to proper safety procedures not being followed on-site. Therefore, as with manual vehicles, in-depth and ongoing staff training is essential.

With their controlled movements, consistent speed and certified safety sensors, AGVs represent a very safe and highly reliable solution.

The riskiest moment

When it comes to AGV safety, the time of highest risk is during the vehicle’s installation — when routes are being tested and staff are getting used to having the vehicles around. Advance briefing and careful employee training is therefore essential. This training has the side benefit of improving acceptance.

How does AGV fleet management work?

Fleets of AGVs are typically managed by a dedicated software program. This is usually produced by the supplier of the vehicle’s navigation system.

Fleets of ANT driven vehicles, for example, can be managed by BlueBotics’ ANT server software.

 

AGV fleet management

Advanced fleet management software includes automatic traffic control by default. Ideally, like ANT server, it should also be capable of managing mixed fleets of different vehicle types and, ideally, even different brands.

For users who prefer to manage and control AGV missions from within their existing site management software, this is possible with the use of an API.

Watch a multi-brand fleet of ANT driven vehicles in action:

HubSpot Video

 

Types of automated guided vehicles

There are four main types of automated guided vehicle, as explained below.

How much do AGVs cost?

How much an automated guided vehicle costs varies depending on the type of AGV system in question. In the U.S., a forked AGV might cost USD $100,000 - $120,000 or more, while an automated pallet truck might cost around $70,000. Tow tractor AGVs are usually cheaper at around $60,000. While underride AGVs can cost as little as $20,000.

How do AGV costs compare to manual vehicles?

The capital investment required for automatic guided vehicles is significantly higher than with manual vehicles. For example, in the U.S. a basic forklift truck might cost as little as USD $25,000, compared to $100,000 - 120,000 for an equivalent forked AGV or automated forklift.

A good rule of thumb is that it usually takes 1.3 - 1.5 AGVs to replace the operations of one manually-driven vehicle.

“67% of supply chain leaders believe robotics and automation have the potential to disrupt or create competitive advantage.” MHI Annual Industry Report 2019

AGV maintenance usually costs around 10% of a vehicle’s sticker price, per year, compared to 5% for manual vehicles. It is also important to factor in the costs of commissioning (installing) AGVs on-site, which can vary greatly depending on the complexity of the project.

Long-term efficiency benefits

Although the upfront costs of AGVs are significant, the efficiency benefits they bring can lead to substantial return on investment being achieved, often in as little as one or two years (see below).

Leasing schemes and subscription-based ‘Robots as a Service’ (RaaS) payment models are also becoming more common, allowing organizations to minimize capital expenditure in favor of lower monthly operating expenses.

How to calculate AGV ROI

There are numerous factors that go into calculating how long it will take for an automated guided vehicle to give a return on investment (ROI).

AGV ROI calculator

These factors include:

  • The initial cost of the automated guided vehicle
  • The AGV’s estimated annual maintenance cost
  • The cost of installing (commissioning) the AGV
  • The equivalent cost of the manual vehicle(s) an AGV is replacing
  • The costs and overheads of the labor being replaced (e.g., forklift drivers)
  • The estimated cost of damage to goods caused by the manual vehicles being replaced

To view a detailed example calculation, read How to calculate AGV ROI or try our AGV ROI Calculator.

Advantages & limitations

The AGV market is expected to see a compound annual growth rate of 14.1% from 2020 to 2027, so clearly organizations are recognizing the value and potential that AGV systems can provide.

When assessing if automated guided vehicles are the right solution for your business, it is important to consider both the advantages they present and any potential limitations.

“The global automated guided vehicle market size was valued at USD $3.0 billion in 2019 and is expected to witness a CAGR of 14.1% from 2020 to 2027.” Grand View Research

Advantages of automated guided vehicles

There are many benefits that organizations can achieve by automating their mobile processes with AGVs. These include:

Limitations of automated guided vehicles

While the benefits of deploying AGVs are very real, there are drawbacks to be aware of too. As with any investment it pays to know both sides of the coin before moving ahead.

5 things to consider when choosing an AGV

1. How is the vehicle installed?

You may have explored a vehicle’s functionality, but have you considered how it is installed? Will it take a matter of hours, just a few days, or weeks of integration with third-party personnel on-site disrupting your normal operations?

The main factor determining commissioning times is the type of navigation technology used to run the vehicle. AGVs based on natural navigation, such as ANT navigation, are typically quick to install since they do not require permanent changes to a site’s infrastructure.

2. How easy is it to modify routes?

Businesses change and sites evolve. At some point you are likely to want to change the routes that your AGVs travel. Will this be as simple as reprogramming digital (virtual) paths, or will updates require more substantial and time-consuming physical changes? Make sure your AGV investment is not going to create a large new expense every time your needs change.

3. How easily can you scale up your AGV fleet?

You may not require multiple automated vehicles today, but if your AGV installation is a success then you might in future. Adding a new vehicle to your operation should not mean a whole new installation project, so look closely at what fleet management options are offered with the AGV you are considering. Make sure you understand how easy it is, and how long it takes, to add new vehicles to your project.

Also, will a supplier’s fleet management software tie you to one type or brand of vehicle? Or can it accommodate other brands of AGV (as ANT navigation can), so that you are not locked into one vehicle vendor and have the widest possible choice of vehicles?

4. What kind of maintenance plan is offered?

Automated guided vehicles are only useful when they are doing what they are programmed to do, so be sure you plan how to keep them working.

Ensure you have access to an AGV maintenance plan that suits your business’ needs and budget. You should typically budget around 10% of an AGV’s sticker price for maintenance per year.

5. How proven is the system in real-world applications?

You need to understand the risks associated with your choice. So, be sure to understand whether you are an AGV startup’s first customer, or whether the company has thousands of vehicles installed and proven in global applications. Ideally, try to speak to several other users of your preferred AGV system before you sign that purchase order.

Plan now for an automated future

Transitioning to automated guided vehicles can be a practical means of future-proofing your business, enabling you to boost efficiency, increase capacity, and at the same time improve safety on-site.

So, with the automated guided vehicle market set to boom in the coming years, now is the perfect time to consider your AGV strategy.

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