There are several drivers behind the surge in uptake of automation in materials handling. While improved productivity and efficiency are two key considerations, so too is the current state of the labour market.
“With high employee turnover rates and labour shortages, it is challenging for many operations to find forklift drivers,” says Chris Walthers, global R&D engineering manager of Cascade Corporation, a manufacturer and supplier of hydraulic and fully electric attachments for AGV environments.
In this context, the introduction of AGVs – and products like the Cascade Electrix line of all-electric attachments for automated vehicles – helps minimise the cost of employee turnover and recurrent training.
“These products also provide an opportunity to optimise the distribution of work,” says Walthers. “Automation strategies can be applied to areas of the operation that would benefit the most from more streamlined and faster workflows.”
With tasks that require fast and precise handling automated and operating 24/7, employees can be left to concentrate on less repetitive tasks that require human levels of skill.
At the same time, according to Walthers, these systems reduce energy usage and improve environmental performance.
“Automation allows for more accurate load positioning, which reduces downtime and ultimately ensures optimum performance of the attachment and vehicle,” he says.
“Automated systems can be programmed to optimise energy usage by reducing unnecessary movements and minimising idle time, reducing waste and inefficiency in the operation. Companies can program automated systems to adjust based on real-time data, reducing energy waste and improving overall efficiency.”
According to Oskari Lindstedt, solutions sales and marketing VP at Rocla AGV Solutions, improved workplace safety is another benefit of automated materials handling systems.
Safety, he says, includes the safety of staff, as well as products. “Automation increases safety in the warehouse and helps decrease damage to products as automated vehicles move and drive carefully at all times. Less damaged goods also mean cost savings.”
Asked about some of the latest developments in terms of driverless/automated materials handling, Lindstedt points to software as an area of innovation.
“Improvements are being made to how automation works; how it can become more efficient and how its performance can improve,” he says.
“Our solution at Rocla AGV is Optimal Automation, which means having manual trucks, AGVs and people working together. Sharing tasks between manual and automated equipment based on material flow peaks is controlled by FleetController.”
According to Lindstedt, to achieve this type of optimisation, the first step is to conduct a review of the customer’s operations.
“We go through what the customer wants to improve and what are their pain points, and then we start evaluating what would be the best solution to make the operation work in the best way possible. All our actions support the efficiency and productivity increase of the customer processes,” he says.
Within this process, productivity, safety and sustainability are all key considerations.
“All our equipment follows the European machine directive and the new ISO3691-4 safety standard and, of course, is CE-marked. Also, environmental viewpoints and sustainability are essential to all of us,” says Lindstedt.
“Our product lifecycle management targets following our solutions throughout the whole lifecycle so that, in the end, all materials can be recycled and reused as efficiently as possible.”
"Automation is less suited for tasks that require human judgment and decision making or for tasks which are only performed a few times a year or at irregular intervals."
Consideration and planning
In considering automation, it’s important to note that it is definitely not a one-size-fits-all proposition. Indeed, there are many cases in which it is not recommended at all.
“Automation is less suited for tasks that require human judgment and decision making or for tasks, which are only performed a few times a year or at irregular intervals,” says Anders Pjetursson, CEO of Robotize.
The GoPal solution from Robotize is a range of safe and collaborative AMRs and related accessories, including lift and conveyor stations. Its autonomous mobile robots are designed for automating internal pallet transportation using different pallet types supporting up to 1,200 kg.
By fully automating transportation tasks, the GoPal solution increases employee safety, prevents injuries and accidents, and avoids damage to goods and infrastructure. In addition, the AMRs enable customers to mitigate labour shortages and labour retention challenges, while leveraging automation to attract a new generation of employees.
According to Pjetursson, automated solutions such as this “…are best suited for tasks, which are critical, but also dull, repetitive, dirty, dangerous, or physically demanding. For instance, automation is ideal for the job of moving a pallet loaded with parts to a production line and then returning a pallet loaded with finished goods to the warehouse.”
“This process is critical, but repetitive as well as physically demanding. By deploying autonomous mobile robots, this process can be made safe and efficient, while simultaneously freeing up employees to do more complicated and valuable tasks,” says Pjetursson.
Return on Investment
Echoing these views, Hu Xiaobo, chairman and CEO of LSLiDAR, says that when working with new clients, it is important to first establish whether automation is suitable. As a rule, workplaces with a working day of less than 12 hours are not suitable; nor are plants with excessively complex production processes and procedures that require high levels of unmanned forklift technology; or factories with a wide range of products or different product shapes that cannot be standardised.
“LSLiDAR will evaluate each customer's needs and industry, strictly control the criteria for the use of unmanned forklifts, and first confirm whether the customer's needs and industry are suitable for automated operations,” says Xiaobo.
“With the continuous development of technology and application, LSLiDAR will develop corresponding solutions for each industry, and will gradually solve and adapt to more application scenarios to help industries achieve automation upgrade and improve operational efficiency.”
In this way, the organisation can ensure that all clients derive real benefits from recent developments like multi-line LiDAR 3D SLAM navigation and positioning technology and AI technology, which makes it possible for automatic materials handling to seamlessly span indoor and outdoor scenarios, and can make deployment and implementation faster, simpler and more efficient.
LSLiDAR has incorporated this technology into AGV forklifts, which are now equipped with multiple high-performance LiDARs for providing comprehensive 3D environment-sensing information to achieve all-round three-dimensional perception and safety protection.
As Xiaobo explains, the whole 3D SLAM AGV forklift solution, which allows forklifts to operate day and night, takes only one to two weeks for batch deployment, and is suitable for various indoor and outdoor scenarios.
Partial or full automation?
Then there is the question of whether partial or full automation is the best choice for a given operation.
Luigi Rebecchi, business development manager - AGV Solution for the Bolzoni Group, says the factors to consider when making this decision include safety, reduced labour costs, higher order throughput, increased accuracy, greater productivity and data analysis.
According to Rebecchi, the preliminary phase of the project – in which the client outlines existing working methodologies – is critically important. Once this is clear and the needs of the end user are noted, the supplier can start putting together a full (or partial) automation strategy.
In the case of Bolzoni, this may include the introduction of its range of attachments designed for automated environments, including fully electric products intended for use in environments, like the food sector, in which contamination from oil needs to be eliminated; and its Shaft Guide System, which is a solution designed for efficient, low-maintenance forks/arms sliding.
Or it may include the introduction of other products from the Bolzoni Group, such as roll clamps (with either 180- or 360-degree rotation), or the electric trilateral head, which is able to operate in VNA applications and can provide fast, precise, and safe operations when installed on AGVs working in high performing warehouses.
As Ren Chaofeng, director of sales at Hangcha Intelligent Technology, points out: “It is necessary to consider the environmental factors of the site project. If the site environment cannot meet the use conditions of AGVs, it needs to be adjusted or improved.”
For example, temperatures of 5° - 55° must be maintained; while monthly average humidity must be no more than 90%, maximum relative humidity must be no more than 95%, and there must be no condensation from the air.
According to Chaofeng, ground conditions are also important. The road gradient must measure less than 3% and the ‘unevenness per square metre’ of the ground must measure less than 5 mm. At the same time, the ground must be capable of discharging static electricity from AGVs. Then, of course, it is necessary to consider the electrical and network requirements of AGVs.
Hangcha is a supplier of choice to a range of industries, including food and beverage, automobile, rubber, photovoltaics, pharmaceutical, ceramics and others. Beyond their capacity to improve efficiency, reducing energy costs, and so forth, the company’s AGVs boast comprehensive multi-level safety features.
As Chaofeng explains, year on year, the demand for automation continues to increase. “While traditional forklift trucks still occupy the dominant position in our overall sales, our automated solutions keep increasing their proportion,” he says.
In 2022, Hangcha AGV sales volumes reached USD60 million, with more than 500 Hangcha AGV forklift projects delivered in industries which included photovoltaic, automotive, 3C electronics, rubber, logistics and pharmaceutical, both domestically and abroad.
Considering the benefits to materials handling operations – of not just AGVs, but automation in general – it seems clear that this trend will continue across the sector, and on a global scale. And as rates of automation rise, so too will operational efficiency, workplace safety and environmental sustainability.
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For this report we interviewed the following industry specialists: