Taking robotics automation out of the building with AGVs

Automated guided vehicles (AGVs) are being used by companies for outdoor applications in a variety of different industries and can provide a strong return on investment (ROI).

By Matt Wade June 15, 2022
Courtesy: Bluebotics


Learning Objectives

  • Automation design should be flexible and secure.
  • Open communication improves productivity and enables a wider use of equipment in the design.
  • 7 steps can help with machine control system design.

Automated guided vehicles (AGVs) use becoming increasingly common, with these mobile robots boosting efficiency across a wide variety of applications. However, the use of AGVs has, until recently, been largely considered an indoor application. This is now changing.

As vehicle suppliers and integrators become more experienced, and the autonomous navigation technology used to drive AGVs becomes more flexible and robust, these vehicles are being used increasingly to transport goods and materials between buildings and beyond. Why is this trend only coming to the fore now? And what should users be looking for from an outdoor AGV.

Outdoor AGVs: A growing trend

AGVs have not traditionally been used in outdoor applications because of the vehicle positioning challenges posed by such changeable environments and the potential for varied and inclement weather. However, applications in which AGVs are used outdoors are now appearing, and the technology is becoming more proven.

Giuliano Bavaj, managing director at Esatroll, creator of several customized outdoor AGV models, said, “We are seeing a strong trend emerging, where more companies are looking to employ AGVs in outdoor applications. Whereas previously only around 10% of the enquiries we receive concerned outdoor use, this has risen sharply and outdoor now accounts for approximately 30%. Although there are complex challenges to resolve in using an AGV outdoors, automating the movement of heavy materials offers many benefits and considerable cost savings.”

Figure 1: AGV transports steel coils at Acerinox in Spain. Courtesy: Bluebotics

Figure 1: AGV transports steel coils at Acerinox in Spain. Courtesy: Bluebotics

Increasing AGV applications: Seaports, production, warehouses

Gonzalo de Sebastian, sales director at DTA, which makes AGVs for heavy industrial applications, said, “Outdoor automation using AGVs started at seaports, but we are seeing a sharp rise in interest across different sectors, as payback for a vehicle can be between just one and three years. The number of applications in which outdoor AGVs are being used is escalating.”

Typical uses include moving goods from a production facility to a warehouse that may be in a different building hundreds of meters away. Traditionally forklifts, trucks, tractors or camions would have been used for this work.

However, this is just one in a growing range of outdoor use cases. De Sebastian said, “We see applications for steel mills, where very heavy steel coils need to be moved significant distances. Also, in foundries and automotive manufacturing, moving, for example, car chassis between buildings.”

AGVs navigating the outdoors

One of the biggest challenges for outdoor AGVs is the weather. Vehicles must be built to withstand heavy rain, dust and other inclement environmental conditions. All electronics must be protected and may sometimes require regulation using thermostats, and weather-resistant components used where necessary (for example, in the case of outward-facing safety laser scanners). All mechanical components also must be properly treated to withstand the elements.

Automated guided vehicles are available with a variety of different navigation systems, from basic physical line-following models to more modern vehicles based on so-called natural navigation.

For outdoor applications, natural navigation offers clear advantages because it requires no permanent changes to the area in which vehicles are operating (for example, no laying of magnetic tape or installing of inductive wires underground), enabling vehicles to be installed relatively quickly and their routes easily modified if an operation evolves.

De Sebastian said, “Every application is unique, so as an AGV supplier we need to provide flexible, open solutions that can be tailormade to meet a specific site’s needs. In dynamic outdoor settings, we recommend the use of natural feature-matching navigation as it offers the greatest flexibility, easy installation, and provides a secure, safe solution that is designed for use in busy areas and can be adapted to changing needs as required.”

By using advanced fleet management software that syncs with a vehicle’s navigation system, AGVs can interface with other sensors and types of equipment such as handshaking with automatic doors and opening them when an AGV approaches.

Figure 2: DTA Dolphin AGV transports aircraft fuselage at Acerinox in Spain. Courtesy: Bluebotics

Figure 2: DTA Dolphin AGV transports aircraft fuselage at Acerinox in Spain. Courtesy: Bluebotics

Return on investment for AGVs

The return on investment (ROI) possible with AGVs, compared to using human-driven vehicles, can be very interesting. Automated versions can pay for themselves in as little as a year.

To move materials manually may require several operators each day and require multiple heavy-duty forklifts and/or trucks. Alongside the cost of labor and capital investment, the vehicles will require regular maintenance and may use high-polluting fuel. If operations run over three shifts, a full 24/7, the breakeven on automated vehicles can be very quick. What’s more, electric-powered AGVs have little maintenance and no emissions. Operations can run without risk of accident and with a level of consistency, reliability and accuracy that cannot be achieved manually.

Bavaj said, “We see some applications where the ROI is less than one year, and we have customers, where an automatic shuttle saves 1,000 Euros a day compared with using traditional trucks.”

Sebastian said, “Only one operator is needed to give orders and there is no risk of accidents.”

Figure 3: Esatroll AGVs move tires between buildings at Michelin’s plant in Cuneo, Italy. Courtesy: Bluebotics

Figure 3: Esatroll AGVs move tires between buildings at Michelin’s plant in Cuneo, Italy. Courtesy: Bluebotics

Outdoor AGVs, greater safety, rapid payback

In many outdoor applications, the use of AGVs to move heavy materials can provide an ROI in as little as one year and usually within a maximum of three.

Bavaj said, “Outdoor AGVs will continue to grow in number because the business case is so clear. Their use reduces traffic, increases safety in working environments, and delivers great operational flexibility. There are really no disadvantages and much to be gained.”

Matt Wade, head of marketing at BlueBotics. Edited by Chris Vavra, web content manager, Control Engineering, CFE Media and Technology, cvavra@cfemedia.com.


Keywords: automated guided vehicles, AGVs


What benefits could your company gain from using AGVs in outdoor applications?

Original content can be found at Control Engineering.

Author Bio: Matt Wade, head of marketing at BlueBotics.