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AGV Mesh-Up: Joint interface for different automated guided vehicles (AGVs)

Automated guided vehicles (AGV) are playing an increasingly important role in intralogistics. But most manufacturers of AGVs use different types of communication and navigation to control fully-automated vehicles. This results in communication problems if customers want to operate a mixed fleet of different manufacturers, which also causes collisions. This is where the VDA 5050 comes in: a new interface that lets AGVs and control software communicate with each other independent of the manufacturer. The KION Group and its subsidiary brand STILL supported the joint project between the German Association of the Automotive Industry (VDA) and the Mechanical Engineering Industry Association (VDMA) from the very start and contributed their expertise. In an interview, Tobias Zierhut, Senior Vice President KION Mobile Automation, and Florian Kratzer, Key Account Manager Automated Solutions at KION, provided an overview of the importance and the different aspects of the project.



KION and have been working on the VDA 5050 project, together with other manufacturers, since it started in 2017. In March this year, the interface passed its first live test, the AGV Mesh-Up, with flying colors. How important is this milestone in intralogistics?

Florian Kratzer: It marks the very first time that we were able to control and test trucks of different manufacturers in live operation using a common master control. A great moment for all involved—for us from because of the involvement of our LTX 50 tugger train and naturally also for the KION Group, which contributed the overarching master control. All six trucks were in operation in an area with a common layout. This has never occurred before and it is fantastic to be a part of this project. And it is also an important step towards raising the public profile of AGVs.

Tobias Zierhut: Precisely, it was an important step to set a new standard in interoperability. And that’s something that we need in order to shape the future of intralogistics. Another important milestone was that it marked the first time that different manufacturers had all come to the table to work together to raise the topic of automation to an entirely new level. Combining the systems increases the added value for customers. The VDA 5050 interface means that they now just need a single management system, which also makes handling much easier and more efficient.

„We are convinced that the expertise that will prove critical in the future lies in software and interface intelligence.”

Tobias Zierhut, Senior Vice President KION Mobile Automation

The project aligns perfectly to one of the KION corporate values that is focused firmly on the topic of collaboration. But, as a manufacturer of AGVs, doesn’t this risk selling fewer trucks?

Tobias Zierhut: We are well aware that the vast majority of customers are not focused on a single provider. After all, enabling greater freedom in this area was the reason behind the VDA 5050 project. But the truck portfolio of the KION Group brands is extremely diverse—we are able to offer the right truck for every application and we are always able to hold our own against the competition. What’s more, we are convinced that the expertise that will prove critical in the future lies in software and interface intelligence. This expertise is something that we were able to demonstrate with our Traffic Management as part of the VDMA project. And we also wanted to use the VDA 5050 project as an opportunity to continue expanding our know-how in interface intelligence so that we can continue to offer a unique selling point in the future.

Florian Kratzer: What’s more, going forward, we will be able to offer customers clear added value if they operate our Traffic Manager as well as the associated STILL fleet. This will allow us to offer customers even more functionalities. As a manufacturer and developer, we have the opportunity to perfectly coordinate both components. In uniform operation, the trucks will then not just be limited to the functionalities that the VDA 5050 offers today. We are constantly working on software extensions and improvements that we can use to integrate additional functionalities into our Traffic Management. And this will make the KION and STILL system even more powerful than the VDA 5050 interface.

„The VDA 5050 is an important step towards making truck automation more accessible for customers.”

Florian Kratzer, Key Account Manager Automated Solutions bei KION

What additional functionalities will be possible in the future?

Tobias Zierhut: For instance, an interesting feature is the communication of the battery charge status. An interlinked management system allows the batteries to be partially recharged at times that cause the least interruptions during daily operation. A common, enhanced master controlmakes the overall use of the trucks more efficient—simply because all factors in the warehouse environment are taken into account and intelligently interlinked at a central point. Predictive maintenance is another important topic that is now within reach. This is an area of great potential in master control and software and is a field in which we are constantly expanding our expertise.

Florian Kratzer: STILL already has the cloud-based tool “iGo insights” for analyzing fleet data. It filters the vast amount of available process information to identify interrelationships and derives specific recommendations for action as to how availability and system performance can be optimized. iGo insights also uses the principle of machine learning in this process. All data that the AGV master control has collected over a long period of time is uploaded to the cloud for analysis and is then remotely available. This means customers can monitor the performance of the fleet at all sites irrespective of their current location. The software identifies structures in the data stream, calculates probabilities, and enables a proactive approach, such as when to schedule servicing or repairs. These are obviously exciting functionalities that already contain genuine added value for customers.

VDA 5050: the Control Tower for Mixed Fleets

In a warehouse, the task of traffic management (or a master control) is comparable to that of an airport control tower. It not only coordinates aircraft take-off and landing activities for all airlines and determines the specific gate for each aircraft at any point in time, but it is also in constant communication with all other vehicles on the runway (from the pilot vehicle to the road sweeper). Just like the control tower, the VDA 5050 interface also speaks a universal language that can be understood by all participants, ensuring that no misunderstandings or collisions occur. It establishes an important foundation for the ability to operate different automated guided vehicles from different manufacturers in the production area and the warehouse.

Can we expect further milestones from the VDA 5050?

Tobias Zierhut: Another cross-manufacturer topic that the VDMA and VDA will be tackling as the next stage is the area of cartography. The “control tower” that contributes to the interface is one thing, but the trucks are currently not in a position to determine whether the “map” of the warehouse has changed and then communicate this to the control tower. A best-case scenario would see the maps automatically update across the working day. And the medium-term aim here is to find a way to allow every truck that is integrated into such a system to contribute maps, material, or data. This topic is still in its infancy, but the drive towards this direction is there.

Florian Kratzer: The interface will also continue to undergo important developments at KION as well. We will be focused on communication between the AGVs and the other manually controlled trucks in the warehouse. These trucks will remain a very important part of intralogistics solutions in the future. Once our overarching master control is able to detect the positions of these trucks, it will be able to send messages to the forklift driver, such as: drive more slowly, an AGV is approaching around the corner and your order is not as time-critical as the pallet on the AGV, which is urgently required in production. In future, the intelligent linking will prevent production downtimes due to missing parts. The networking of our forklift guidance system and the AGV master control will then allow the fleets of forklift trucks under the KION brands to operate even more intelligently and efficiently.

Do you think that the VDA 5050 will accelerate the topic of automation in the short- and medium-term and make it attractive for a larger group of customers?

Florian Kratzer: The VDA 5050 interface is an important prerequisite for taking the leap into automation and ensuring more planning certainty for our customers. The aim is to enable a uniform process chain with a clear interface description and an overarching master control. And obviously also to create a system in which a single truck can be easily replaced. All of these things are hugely important for companies, particularly in view of the move towards digitalization and Industry 4.0, as this is precisely where the focus is on the concrete feasibility. In this respect, the interface is another important step towards making truck automation more accessible for customers.

AGV Mesh-Up: World Premiere for the VDA 5050 Interface

During the AGV Mesh-Up at the end of March 2021 in Dortmund, the first live test of the VDA 5050 went smoothly proving that trucks manufactured by arculus, DS AUTOMOTION, SAFELOG, Siemens AG, SSI SCHÄFER, and STILL could all be successfully operated together using the KION Group’s master control. The name is based on a wireless mesh network in which different components “mesh” and are considered a single wireless network.