Increased productivity requires an open robotics platform
One of the most common misunderstandings among manufacturing entrepreneurs is that the robotisation of a company implies growth in productivity and flexibility.
This misunderstanding comes from confusing so-called “hard automation” with robotics. Since its introduction in the late 18th century, the aim of hard automation has always been productivity growth and the enhancement of non-human-performable operations. Robotics, a subject that has emerged only in recent years, has the goal of substituting humans in performing some difficult operation (due to the combination of accuracy and repeatability these assets can provide), without any mention of production increase.
In this perspective, material handling as part of the production process is subject to the same considerations. Why then are the most advanced manufacturing companies investing in AGV (Automated Guided Vehicle) fleets?
To answer this question, we need to look at the concepts of productivity and flexibility again.
Added value from two angles
As far as productivity is concerned, unless the AGVs are supposed to operate in human-forbidden environment, they are usually slower than humans. However, an increasing number of manufacturing companies is installing AGVs because of safety: when the processed material is particularly heavy and its handling could be harmful for the operators, the AGVs can eventually take care of the loading operations and prevent the load falling off during the transport phase. Moreover, if the material is handled by a robot, the operator who would be needed to move the items has more time to spend on value-adding activities.
A company producing custom metal gears is a good example. The process to manufacture the products is almost artisanal and the workers performing these activities are highly skilled. If the employees are kept from their work to supply goods to other stations, they must fit their productive activity in a tighter timeframe. Moreover, if the manufactured gears are very heavy, the employee must be helped by other colleagues, who would then be prevented from doing their own work, or must move the product alone, being exposed to potential injury.
Proprietary constraints slow down productivity
On the other hand, lack of flexibility is a constraining issue for an AGV. In fact, the term “Automated Guided Vehicle” describes the first generations of vehicles following magnetic or coloured stripes on the floor. This feature, of course, weakened the flexibility of the intralogistics process, since the AGVs were constrained to fixed paths and the design and optimisation of those paths takes weeks.
In recent years, however, laser scanners and Simultaneous Localisation And Mapping (SLAM) algorithms have freed these vehicles from fixed stripes, allowing them to roam within an enclosed space knowing their placement and the target’s coordinates (free roaming). The main setback of this approach is a direct consequence of the highly complex algorithms that control the AGV: since this complexity requires significant effort, the AGV manufacturers have tried to protect their intellectual property with proprietary protocols and interfaces.
The consequences are felt by the end-users of AGVs, such as the gear manufacturer in the example above. To save its workers from injuries and to allow them to focus on their main activities, the company bought two free-roaming AGVs. After some years, the company had grown its business and expanded its facility, so it required new AGVs to complement its fleet. The proprietary interfaces of the Fleet Management System, however, did not allow the company to buy assets made by another manufacturer, unless it was prepared to invest a lot of time and money in system integration.
True productivity with open-platform flexibility
The pursuit of this flexibility in AGV management is exactly what the European research project L4MS is aiming at – the deployment of open interfaces over open protocols allowing any company to connect AGVs by any manufacturer. With this approach, ensured by the Open Platform for Internal Logistics (OPIL), companies can use the OPIL Fleet Management System to control all their AGVs regardless of manufacturer, while the AGV manufacturers have an opportunity to access a market totally free from any technological constraints.