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Wednesday, May 29, 2024

Autonomous vehicles in the production process

Chris Unwin surveys the road ahead for companies looking to implement AVs into the warehouse environment

Chris Unwin


L.A.C Conveyors and Automation

There’s been much talk, of late, about the development of autonomous vehicles, with the UK Government revealing ambitious plans to have them on the nation’s roads by 2021.

While the British public eagerly awaits the outcome of trials, many major businesses within the manufacturing and logistics industries are already benefiting from the installation of these types of vehicles. However, many smaller firms will be feeling a sense of uncertainty about the rollout of such technology. Certainly, different factors must be considered depending on individual requirements, the type of vehicle or the technology chosen.

The perception of automation
When you make reference to the term “automation” within the walls of a warehouse of manufacturing professionals, you’re often met with a mixture of excitement and trepidation from staff; staff can be ‘excited’ to hear that some of the latest technology is being brought in to improve the production process, but potentially fearful that it could reduce the demands on physical human members of the team. Automation should enhance the production process, delivering improved product lines for customers and streamlining manufacturing between different internal teams rather than replacing members of staff altogether. AVs are just one of the latest innovations to be implemented by businesses to reduce the physical demands on staff and enhance their experience by limiting health and safety risks and delivering improved quality of service.

The limitations and benefits of AVs
However, it is important to remember that AVs that operate within warehouses are a ‘different beast’ when compared to the likes of Tesla and the other consumer autonomous vehicles currently undergoing tests on UK’s roads. Autonomous Intelligent Vehicles (AIVs) or Automated Guided Vehicles (AGVs) are the two main types that dominate the sector, each with their own benefits and limitations.

Automated Guided Vehicles (AGVs)
AGVs are typically made up of vehicles that follow a pre-designated path dictated by technology such as laser scanners, or ones that use ground markings, lines or magnets to navigate around the warehouse floor. While this type of vehicle might be suitable for more ‘simple’ routes or tasks, AGVs do come with their limitations. They are costly and time-consuming to install, as well as being inflexible; they are unable to navigate around obstacles or obstructions such as stock or members of staff. It’s therefore crucial that if a business decides to invest in this type of solution, the layout of the working environment is carefully considered to avoid the risk of collisions and minimise the incidence of accidents.

The way the product process is introduced to existing staff is usually the key to success or failure

Autonomous Intelligent Vehicles (AIVs)
In contrast, AIVs, while slightly more expensive in terms of investment, can safely operate alongside physical members of staff. They do not require any workspace retrofitting as they are able to account for existing obstacles when negotiating a working environment. They can also work seamlessly with physical members of staff and work collaboratively as a fleet. However, as mentioned, it’s important that when implementing these types of solutions that staff are made fully aware of the remit of autonomous vehicles; that they are there to provide support as opposed to replacing them.

Within production or manufacturing environments, autonomous vehicles are an excellent way to perform physically demanding tasks such as shifting heavy stock, which could be crucial during times of high demand or seasonal trends such as Christmas where there is an acceleration of orders. They can also be used in hazardous or poor working conditions which could pose a risk to human members of staff such as extreme temperatures.

Considerations for smaller businesses looking to employ AVs
It is important that smaller companies consider the significant financial investment required before embarking on employing automation. Fortunately, the ‘ROI’ or impact of automation can be easily measured, ensuring any decisions to invest in these forms of technology can usually be justified if needed:

– Automation can increase productivity by reducing the time taken to perform repetitive tasks – freeing up staff to complete more technical tasks
– It can reduce the amount of product defects or faults that might have been caused through human error, increasing overall customer satisfaction
– Processes can be easily replicated, guaranteeing all products are subject to the exact same tooling and care, ensuring a more consistent final result
– Staff will be less bored as a result of the automation of repetitive or monotonous tooling processes improving satisfaction and retention levels
– There will be less training required for members of staff
– The automation of processes, once programmed effectively, means they should meet internal or external compliance requirements such as statutory regulations and auditing

As with any new technological integration to a business, the way the product or process is introduced to existing staff is usually the key to success or failure of its implementation. For those that consider automation a bad thing or a change to traditional methods of production, it’s important to remember that everything is changing all of the time; but when you’re so heavily involved and vested within an industry, you often don’t notice it. Sure, if there’s major upheaval in the short term then these rapidly changing impacts might be perceived as negative. However, if the changes are for the greater good, what then? There’s always at least two sides to a story.

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