Equipment Highlight: When AGVs and robots marry

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by Emily Atkins
Bruce Buscher
Bruce Buscher

AGVs have been on the scene in North America since 1958 or 1959. Robots have been around since the ‘70s.

“They’ve always been looked at as two different entities,” said Bruce Buscher, vice-president, Jervis B Webb. “The big trend that we’re seeing in warehouse and distribution right now is marrying the two of them together.”

The two already co-exist in warehousing and distribution, he said. From an order picking perspective, for example, a lot of companies want to use robots to do their order picking, because of the speed and accuracy, and they can run it on a 24/7 basis.

But, he continued, it comes down the size of area that you are picking from. How do you get picking robots to cover the huge spaces in some DCs?

“One of the things we’re doing more and more of these days is taking the robot, putting it on the automatic guided vehicle and taking the robot around,” he said.
“The robot is going up and down the aisles on an automatic guided vehicle and doing the picking for the customer.”

The trend is being driven by the availability of powerful new battery technology that allows an AGV to power itself—and the robot riding it—with a 30- to 45-second charging cycle.

As well, a lot of companies are moving to robots  because they don’t have to worry about employee turnover, salaries or ergonomic issues.

With vision technology on the robot it can see what it’s picking up, it can pick up one or two pieces and move on. Light picking or voice picking systems may not be required any more because the robot knows how the warehouse is laid out. As well, the whole DC can be in the dark, offering more cost savings opportunities.

“The robot’s never going to forget the layout so all he’s got to know is, ‘I go to this position in the warehouse and my tote or my bin is going to be there,” Buscher said. “I’m going to pick up a box or I’m going to pick up three pieces, I’m going to load it onto my system then I’m going to move on’.”

Driving the trend in warehousing and distribution, Buscher noted, are accountability regulations. And it’s not just retail; pharmaceutical companies are looking at using this technology because of government regulations.

“They’ve got to have accountability and traceability. And what better way to do that? You’ve already got two computers, one running the AGV, one running on the robot; it’s very easy to get that information back to the inventory or the order fulfillment system.”