More haste, less speed

Back in the mid-1990s, automated guides vehicle systems were totally new. But even if the latest models are more technically advanced, 'Hugo' has done very well over the last 22 years and remains a highly reliable 'colleague'.

The paint manufacturer Meffert AG, based in Saxony in eastern Germany, has been operating two driverless industrial trucks made by Egemin for more than 20 years, and they are working just as well as on the very first day. But for the KION Group, simply knowing that their trucks will keep running and running is not enough. For some time now, their focus has been on developing state-of-the-art systems that are exceptionally resource-efficient.

‘Hugo’ has been operating for 22 years now, without a single accident. “When he turned 18, we joked that he was only then allowed to drive on his own!” says Roland Barth, giving 'Hugo' an affectionate glance. “But of course he has in fact been a trusty servant for us since day one.” Barth is manager of the Meffert AG paint factory in the town of Ostrau in Saxony, eastern Germany. And 'Hugo' is the company’s pet name for its two driverless industrial trucks made by Egemin. Despite having now reached a grand age for their generation of automated guided vehicles, the pair are still as capable as ever.

The plant in Ostrau was Germany’s most modern paint factory when it first opened in 1992 on a former greenfield site. In 1996, the progressive decision was made to procure two automated guided vehicle systems, a technology that had only come on the market at the end of the 1980s. Since that time, the two man-size crimson trucks have been working in a two-shift operation, transporting pallets laden with paint containers and cans to the twelve filling stations in the warehouse. Every day, they move between 40 and 50 tons in this way.

"If the two trucks were to ever break down, we would have a real problem."

Roland Barth

Always on the move

Operating virtually noiselessly and at a brisk walking pace, they blend seamlessly into the background. The 75 employees at the plant are very much used to working with their two 'Hugos', and have even been known to give them a friendly pat on the back from time to time. “The benefit of driverless trucks is not just that they eliminate the need for a forklift driver to trek monotonously back and forth between the pick-up point and warehouse,” says Barth. “It’s also that they are extremely safe.” If someone gets in the way of the trucks, for example, they’ll stop. The two 'Hugos' have so far been operating for close to 100,000 hours combined without a single accident.

“Longevity is what makes our driverless transport systems so unique,” says a proud Thomas Kaminski, Dematic’s Vice President for Mobile Automation. Kaminski previously held the position of CEO at Egemin North America before the company became part of the new KION brand company Dematic. “A compact and robust design, a long-lasting battery, high-quality electromechanical parts and regular software updates have made it possible for them to run for more than 20 years and counting.”

“If the two trucks were to ever break down, we would have a real problem,” says Barth. “We would then have to quickly bring in a forklift truck and driver as a replacement.” But the plant manager has no reason to worry. The trucks are serviced every year and the transmissions were replaced as recently as 2016. At some point, of course, Barth will have to think about a general upgrade, as it is now mainly only the plant’s elder statesmen who are familiar with the old BOS operating system. But this wouldn’t be much cheaper than buying a whole new system.

"What can I say, we’re tech nerds!"

Thomas Kaminski

New, sustainable and flexible

Of course, Dematic would be ready and waiting with fresh solutions. An incredible amount has changed over the past two decades in the now indispensable world of automated guided vehicles. Customers are more demanding, for example. They want trucks that are easy to use and can be rapidly deployed. Whereas Meffert’s 'Hugos' still drive on induction tracks, i.e. they are part of a fixed system, the latest trucks can navigate freely by using laser sensors. This is essential for e-commerce giants such as Amazon, JD.com and Alibaba, which need to transport smaller, individual orders rather than whole pallets. Indeed online retail is now a new market in its own right.

Demand for customized trucks is also increasing, as is demand for hybrid drives that can be converted from manual to automatic control and vice versa. Kaminski’s global teams have made this a reality. For a long time now, they have been supplying high-tech truck models – electric, so no emissions, and equipped with the latest safety tools – that are helping customers to gain a competitive edge and operate sustainably. And they too have nicknames for their new automated systems: they call the two software solutions on which the trucks operate ‘Atom’ and ‘Ion’. “What can I say, we’re tech nerds!” says Kaminski with a smile.


More haste, less speed

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