Andy Battler, director of operations for the new AGV (automated guided vehicle) division at JMP Solutions, a system integrator based in London, Ontario, explains why material movement is the next frontier in automation.
Manufacturing AUTOMATION: What are manufacturers looking for when they come to JMP for solutions?
Andy Battler: For customers who don’t know what they want to do, we begin with an automation roadmap and we evaluate their operations in their facilities. We bring to them a report of available solutions – they’re solutions that we know would fit their operation.
For those who know what they want to do, we start with either helping them build their requirements, or we quote the project and execute it. We work in traditional discrete controls, process control, material handling, robotics and automation, operations management and information systems, AGV, networking, security. We try to be able to support manufacturers with just about everything under their roof.
MA: What AGV solutions does JMP offer to manufacturers?
AB: We are experts in multiple AGV platforms, so we can help our customers identify the right technology, and the right OEM to provide the technology. Then we will integrate those vehicles or software solutions into existing factories with factory automation.
There are different technologies out there – there are self-driving, or autonomous, vehicles that don’t need any sort of infrastructure. And there are guided vehicles, which require either laser guidance or inertial guidance – so magnets on the floor or magnetic tape. We can work with our customers to identify what the right solution is, because there are obviously different price points for different levels of flexibility and complexity.
MA: In what applications might one type be better than the other?
AB: I wouldn’t say that self-driving or autonomous is right for every situation. Typical autonomous vehicles are autonomous mobile robots (AMR) or self-driving vehicles (SDV).
Those are unit carriers, so they have a mobile platform. You build an appliance on it, or some sort of lift where we can pick up parts, and then move them to other parts, or to other places. You can’t pick from the floor and you can’t pick from racking. You have to pick from a stand, or some other fixture, so there are definitely situations where you would use guided vehicles versus autonomous ones.
There’s still a pretty clear gap there. Autonomous vehicles are meant for rapidly changing environments; they provide flexibility so that you’re not restricted to a specific path.
MA: What are the benefits of AGVs? Why should manufacturers have them?
AB: AGVs solve a lot of problems for manufacturers. One of them is resourcing. A number of our customers simply cannot resource enough. AGVs are a way to provide flexibility within the manufacturing environment where typically you would install conveyors or move material from one point in your process to another point – any process that is fixed.
We’re not looking to automate the factory so that people don’t have jobs. Our goal is to help manufacturers increase their competitiveness by implementing technology and different solutions.
MA: What should a manufacturer consider when they’re evaluating whether an AGV is right for their facility?
AB: The company has to be forward thinking in order to go towards an AGV solution. It’s not a commodity solution at this point – even the guided vehicles are still fairly straightforward. They’re not advanced. They’re not off the shelf yet.
The company has to consider their existing automation. Are they a fairly technology-driven company? Are they looking for more advanced solutions to increase their competitiveness?
When we’re talking to customers to decide what type of technology they should use, it’s application-specific. If they’re delivering a single part to a single point, that’s a great opportunity for self-driving vehicle. If they find that they require the flexibility to change their traffic patterns regularly, then that’s great opportunity for self-driving vehicles as well. If they need higher speeds and constant routes, that’s a great opportunity for guided.
MA: What’s your focus for long-term AGV sales growth in Canada?
AB: Our focus right now is to build the group so that we can properly serve our customer base. We’ve got excellent growth; we’ve got a good volume of projects. The last thing we want to do is overextend and then under-satisfy.
MA: How have you seen the manufacturing landscape change over the past few years as a result of AGV implementation?
AB: I don’t mean to minimalize it, but AGVs are really just another evolutionary step in the greater automation or manufacturing evolution. It’s no different than PLCs in the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s, or robotics in the ’90s and the ’00s. AGVs are the next natural step. Material movement in a factory or a manufacturing facility is bound to be automated.
A condensed version of this article originally appeared in the January/February 2020 issue of Manufacturing AUTOMATION.