August 25, 2014
Volume I, Issue 4

No Risk Automation
Asking the Right Questions

Load type is just one of the variables or criteria that must be considered when considering automation, particularly AGV (automated guided vehicle) selection.  The load types might include pallets, rolls, cases, containers, bales, or something else.  This should be one of the first considerations asked in the selection process.  Another consideration is load weight, which is usually defined in categories.  Each vehicle purchased has weight constraints and limits that must be carefully evaluated by the plant manager or warehouse manager.  Operating outside the weight specifications is often a direct cause for safety issues and personnel injury.   Yet another variable is lifting height, which may range from ground operations, fixed heights with no lifting capacity, or a range of heights where walkie stackers are required.

Application Study and Analysis

Many applications of AGVs are technically feasible, but the purchase and implementation of such systems is usually based on economic considerations.  The uses of AGVs can be divided into four main areas of application: 1) supply and disposal at storage and production areas, 2) production-integrated application of AGV trucks as assembly platforms, 3) retrieval, especially in wholesale trade, and 4) supply and disposal in special areas, such as hospitals and offices. In all of these settings, AGVs have been found to reduce the damage to inventory, make production scheduling more flexible, and reduce staffing needs.  AGVs are a major capital decision and implementation requires a level of fiscal caution combined with industry knowledge and experience.

Specification Development 

An engineering team is not required to select AGV automation; years of AGV industry experience and understanding custom material handling solutions for customers is essential.  Too often the emphasis of engineering services detracts the overall project and layout analysis and development of customized tooling options.  The first step is the same in all automation processes: namely analyze automation needs and begin developing an implementation plan.  Ultimately there are engineering considerations in AGV layouts to minimize wait time and maximize efficiency when moving between material handling stations.

Vendor Selection

Writing in Industrial Management Principles of Automated Data Processing, Hartmann suggested following a simple investment formula to compare the costs of AGV systems. The formula calculates the cash value of savings from the AGV, divided by the cash value of extra costs (compared to the old system) plus the difference in initial outlay (which sets the cash value difference of the extra costs and the cash value difference of the initial outlay against the savings). Obviously, the larger the comparison factor, the more favorable the investment. In performing this calculation, a business must consider both the fixed and variable costs. Fixed costs are incurred independently of the degree of loading, while variable costs depend on the degree of loading the AGVs.  An imperfect algorithm to be sure, yet worthy of consideration.

Project Manage

In a recent issue of Automation & Controls Today, manufacturing journalist Thomas R. Cutler, suggested, "The end-user customer's interests may not align with the AGV vendor's interests. The only way to avoid these conflicts is a vendor agnostic approach to automation."  Cutler noted that AGV sales representatives have one goal: sell AGVs.  Performance was measured by the number of vehicles sold per month, per quarter, per year, year over year, and at a measured profitability.  Few have the courage to say to the customer and to C-level AGV management, "Sorry, this isn't the right product for you."

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