Manufacturers are increasingly turning to automation to solve their materials handling challenges. But as many are realizing, not all self-driving industrial vehicle companies are alike. The various robotic solutions on the market have vastly different degrees of flexibility, scalability and infrastructure requirements. Before investing in automation, be sure to ask your automated guided vehicle (AGV) vendor these important questions.
Do they have evidence of fleets operating in real world facilities?
Step into any manufacturing or distribution trade show and you’ll see self-driving vehicles easily navigating around booths using tape, lasers or various other types of infrastructure. While it’s certainly an impressive sight, it’s a little trickier to navigate a narrow plant aisle packed with humans, forklifts and other robots.
Before you determine which vendor to partner with, it’s important to see the product in action. It’s important to assess whether your vendor has fleets of vehicles working every day in complicated, real world environments. If your AGV vendor can’t prove this real world experience, you take on a significant amount of risk in implementing an unproven product in your facility.
Can they provide solutions that scale across applications and facilities?
When selecting an automation vendor, it’s important to consider not only your current needs, but future applications as well. You need an automated solution that will grow with your company, adapting to your changing industry and taking on the challenges you face as your business grows.
If you’re considering a solution with lasers, wires, magnets or tape, you can expect to pay a hefty fee for your self-driving vehicle vendor to re-train the robot any time you want it to follow a new route. Thus, infrastructure-based solutions are unrealistic for the many manufacturers and distributors who routinely experience peak seasons and new product launches. Conversely, self-driving vision guided vehicles (VGVs) use cameras for navigation that can be retrained in-house in minutes. Because they are 100% infrastructure-free, this type of automated vehicle can handle extensive environmental change, allowing them to be moved from one work process to another or from facility to facility to handle peak seasons or expansions. This type of flexibility saves you from risking time and money—now and a year from now—as your business continues to grow.
Do they deliver robots that are infrastructure free?
Many automated vehicle vendors claim to be infrastructure-free, and most tout flexibility, but what do these buzzwords mean for the productivity of your facility? If you’re looking for an automated vehicle solution that can be installed in your plant without interrupting the flow of production, you need a solution that is 100% flexible and infrastructure-free.
Traditional automated vehicle vendors and other material transporters require costly upfront installation of physical landmarks such as wires, magnets or tape throughout your plant, which can disrupt production. Additionally, if you want to modify the route after the placement of these landmarks, most AGV vendors have to send a team of engineers to retrain the route. This process is costly, and can take days or even weeks, which risks downtime in your plant.
Lasers and geo-guidance solutions—favored by some newer AGV companies—use structural environments like walls, columns and racks to auto-locate. Because their recordings are based on 2D maps, laser-based automated vehicles often get “lost” when boxes are moved off racking, or if anything else changes between the vehicle’s initial training and when it embarks on its route. If your plant often moves product, people or vehicles in or out of the vehicle’s path, avoid a laser-based automated vehicle solution.
Do they commit to a prompt vehicle delivery?
Installation of traditional AGV systems (lasers, wires, tape, etc.) requires time to find a solution, engineer that solution, and build the solution. When all this custom work is said and done, it can take months and even years between the sale and actual vehicle delivery. Even some infrastructure-free solutions require extensive backend work before vehicle delivery is possible.
If you’re considering an AGV vendor that is headquartered in Europe or elsewhere, consider that international companies often do not have the appropriate infrastructure to fully support your operation. This means you can expect extended time periods for simple services to your AGVs post-install. Make sure that your AGV vendor has an expert Service team in the U.S. that can help you quickly fix issues and prevent any downtime.
Can they install vehicles quickly and efficiently?
Because self-driving vehicle vendors offer a variety of solutions, the installation process differs greatly between vendors. If you’re looking for a quick ROI, consider that an infrastructure-based solution requires an extensive install period upfront as landmarks are placed and many tests are run to ensure the vehicle can recognize them. Long lead and installation time delays the ROI you’ll see on your self-driving vehicle investment.
Do they offer a full automation solution?
As manufacturing and distribution facilities evolve into smart factories, and solutions such as self-driving vehicles, software systems and physical infrastructure become automated, it will be crucial to deploy an integrated system that brings all of these components together to improve your material flow. Self-driving vehicle vendors that offer a holistic solution ensure that all automated systems work in sync to increase efficiency and make sure you get the most out of your investment in automation.
Can they provide a personalized customer success team?
A quick and efficient post-sale process is key to the customer’s overall success. To ensure the smoothest possible transition into using your new vehicle, ask your vendor if they provide a personal customer success team.
This article was written by Jim Rock, the CEO of Seegrid and is a progressive leader of growth-stage technology companies. Jim’s expertise spans 25+ years in hi-tech industries including artificial intelligence software, voice recognition technology, acoustic semiconductors for mobile devices, and enterprise-grade software.