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New AGVs rolling into plastics plants

Issue: August 2017

With the rise of Industry 4.0, plant managers are increasingly turning to automated guided vehicles (AGVs) to streamline operations, facilitate lights-out manufacturing and cut the costs of transporting materials. Boasting new technologies, including improved sensing capabilities, AGVs can be better integrated into automated manufacturing environments.

Companies spend some $7 billion a year on manual transport of both raw materials and finished goods, with the cost of transport adding some 25 to 40 percent to the cost of material. Because much of that movement occurs within plants, AGVs can make a significant dent in transportation costs, said Bill Torrens, director of sales for AGV supplier Otto Motors.


The driver for interest in advanced AGVs, according to Comau, is the evolution of Industry 4.0, with connected sensors, devices, computers and integrated systems throughout industrial plants.

Comau’s Agile 1500 can carry up to 3,307 pounds, with a maximum speed of 5.6 feet per second. The advanced AGV uses both natural and magnetic navigation.

“The fully automated logistics technology enables Comau to better support highly individualized, highly efficient production while safeguarding productivity and profitability across the entire manufacturing line,” the company said.

In April, Comau launched its Agile 1500, a modular, scalable and reconfigurable unit that can carry up to 3,307 pounds, with a maximum speed of 5.6 feet per second.

The Agile 1500 is the first AGV based on the company’s open automation design approach. Like many AGVs, the Agile 1500 can be fitted with different accessories for functions such as towing and lifting.

It uses both natural navigation and magnetic navigation. Natural navigation uses measurements from the laser sensor to recognize landmarks, such as walls and columns and similar surfaces. The laser scanner works in conjunction with the AGV’s safe-speed module and its safe PLC to keep the Agile 1500 from running into obstacles. The Agile 1500 also can navigate by detecting magnets embedded in the floor, or magnetic tape affixed to the floor. Magnetic navigation is often used in pallet aisles, corridors and for piggyback AGVs.

Software controls the entire AGV system, handling transport orders, allocating different vehicles and selecting routes for the different transport orders, which are generated through digital input/output via a host system or through an interface.

Otto Motors

Improved navigation and programmability are also guideposts for Otto Motors’ offerings.

The flexible Otto 1500 self-driving vehicle

“In a traditional plastics factory, some of the key characteristics are that there are a number of different machines working with a lot of different materials at the same time,” Torrens said. “There are molding machines, processing machines, extruders, etc., that are all working in a nonsequential manner, collectively producing a high volume of materials, but the plant layouts are usually poorly designed for materials handling.”

Because of this, plant managers need AGVs that are flexible enough to handle the production schedules of the different machines, and can move to different areas of the facility on an as-needed basis. Additionally, the AGVs must be easily programmed to perform different tasks without the need for experienced programmers, who are in very short supply.

Those factors prompted Otto Motors to design its AGVs — the Otto 100 and Otto 1500 self-driving vehicles (SDVs) — to meet the rigors of industrial environments, while maintaining the flexibility to work in a lab or other environment.

The Otto units feature all-metal construction and an integrated lift for automated loading and unloading. The vehicles are designed for durability in a variety of environments spanning health-care, automotive and small-cell manufacturing.

The use of the SDVs in plastics plants is still in the embryonic stages, Torrens said. “We are engaged with several plastics plants, primarily in the automotive, food and beverage industries.” He expects the Otto devices to be adopted in plastics plants after gaining acceptance in other manufacturing facilities, typically ones that work closely with plastics processors.

Otto recently introduced new software, Otto M, to connect the vehicles with sensors, maps and other Industry 4.0 technology. The software includes a standard interface for integration with legacy enterprise software.

Otto offers facility managers a one-week trial program to use the Otto 100 or Otto 1500.

Mobile Industrial Robots

Like Otto Motors, Mobile Industrial Robots (MiR) doesn’t refer to its vehicles as AGVs, instead calling them autonomous mobile robots. That’s to differentiate them from older AGVs that were limited to single pathways.

The MiR200 autonomous mobile robot can handle loads of up to 440 pounds.

The company’s two recent models use maps of an entire facility, including obstacles, aisles, work stations, etc., so that they can determine which routes to take to perform particular tasks, said Ed Mullen, VP of sales for North America.

The MiR100 autonomously transports objects weighing up to 220 pounds, while the MiR200 is designed for loads of as much as 440 pounds. Both can be equipped with customized modules to accommodate accessories such as bins, racks, lifts, conveyors or a collaborative robot arm. Top modules are easy to change so the devices can be redeployed for different tasks, Mullen said.

The MiR technology is similar to that used in autonomous automobiles, Mullen said.

The units are designed to safely maneuver around people and obstacles, through doorways and in and out of elevators. An operator can download CAD files of the building directly to the AGV, or program the AGV with a simple, web-based interface that requires no prior programming experience.

The operator can program the AGV to run between a supply area and an extruder, for example, Mullen said. The vehicle’s mapping system determines the best route.

“The next day, you might need it to run between the same two points, but stop at a labeling station in between; you can easily change the schedule; it has a very intuitive interface, allowing you to program in new positions [destinations] and new missions within minutes,” Mullen said.

The device’s mission can be easily adapted using a smartphone, tablet or computer connected to the network, Mullen added.

With built-in sensors, cameras and sophisticated software, the MiR100 and MiR200 can identify their surroundings and take the most efficient route to their destinations, safely avoiding obstacles and people.

The AGVs can sense objects within 65 feet and have emergency braking capability that enables them to stop to avoid any obstacle that is at least 2 feet away, Mullen added. If a planned route is unexpectedly obstructed, an AGV will adjust its route accordingly.

Without the need to alter a facility with expensive, inflexible wires or sensors, plant operators can achieve a fast return on investment from the robot, with payback in as little as eight months, Mullen said.

More traditional AGVs have a longer payback period, so their prices are harder to justify for small and medium-sized plastics plants, Mullen said.

The company’s AGVs are in use in plastics plants, Mullen said, with one at a Unilever personal care division plant and another at Argon Medical Devices, Plano, Texas. In each case, the units are mounted with custom MiR hooks so that they can grab carts at one station and deliver them to another, relieving workers from having to leave their stations to make those deliveries.

Mullen said that he foresees that more plants will invest in AGVs, or expand their use of them, once plant managers see how they improve efficiency.

“AGVs have been around for a long time, but MiR offers new leading-edge technology for the materials-handling business,” Mullen said. “We’re trying to educate people on the expanded efficiency that MiR provides.”

He likened the state of the AGV industry to that of industrial robots just as they started to become more reliable and programmable many years ago. “It’s really in the early stages. Once people understand [the] capabilities, they will be using them for tasks they had never thought of before — moving waste into a bin; moving and emptying bins into dumpsters; moving boxes; moving pallets. … It’s very costly to have a person do any of this.”

Jervis B. Webb

Jervis B. Webb’s SmartCart Automatic Guided Cart is ideal for assembly line applications.

Part of Daifuku North America, a company that makes materials-handling equipment, Jervis B. Webb offers AGVs with a variety of programmable capabilities.

The SmartLoader AGV can deliver palletized loads.

The SmartLoader AGV can deliver palletized loads into any standard over-the-road trailer on a 24/7 basis. It loads trailers based on customer specifications.
Standard automated storage and retrieval vehicles offer numerous load deck and interface options, including conveyor, lift/lower and robotic arm configurations, as well as various load decks.

The SmartCart Automatic Guided Cart (AGC) is designed for use as an assembly platform in low- to medium-volume production. Assembly production rates can be increased or decreased on demand simply by adding or removing AGCs from the line. SmartCart AGC can also be used as a load carrier with load platform or transfer mechanisms such as a nondriven conveyor bed moving material between stations with regularity and predictability.

Bruce Buscher, VP of sales, said the company’s most significant recent development in AGVs is the addition of vision-guidance systems. They can be added to many older units to enable them to work in concert with other units, so that multiple AGVs can be deployed at the same time without running into each other.

He added that AGV providers are getting boosts from robotics companies that want to be able to offer integrated solutions to their customers.

Phillip Britt, contributor


For more information

Comau LLC,
Southfield, Mich., 248-353-8888, http://comau.com

Jervis B. Webb Co.,
Farmington Hills, Mich., 248-553-1000, www.daifuku.com

Mobile Industrial Robots Inc.,
Holbrook, N.Y., 631-675-1838, www.mobile-industrial-robots.com

Otto Motors,
Kitchener, Ontario, 844-733-6886, www.ottomotors.com