2020-06-09

More than 'just' a machine

Is this your description of the perfect colleague? (S)he is reliable, independent and is even willing to take on difficult and monotonous tasks without ever complaining. Well then, meet the AGV, the automated guided vehicle! For over 60 years these machines have been the perfect colleagues in warehouses. The increasingly intelligent machines are becoming gradually easier to handle and fit perfectly into your team while becoming both popular ‘colleagues’ and simply indispensable helpers.

Anyone walking around the premises of Bay Bell Aluminium in George Town, Tasmania, is likely to encounter two of the most famous robots in film history: two AGVs there have been handling the transport of 190,000 tonnes of aluminum annually since 2018 bear a striking resemblance to Wall-E and R2D2. They unflaggingly move along the 500 meters between the production hall and the outdoor warehouse, 24/7. "The AGVs have helped Bell Bay Aluminium improve work efficiency and safety for our employees," notes Tim Clark, a process control systems specialist at the company. To help the staff develop a friendly relationship with the steel "teammates" from the outset, they were given a say in their design and they chose the popular stars from the Pixar production and Star Wars respectively.

KION subsidiary Dematic is responsible for the production of the two AGVs. Dematic sells its automated transport systems worldwide and has observed time and again that its vehicles are often given human, if not superhuman, attributes by a customer’s employees. "Our AGVs are suddenly no longer just operatable 'Dematics', but costumed superheroes, mascots and much more," explains Jessica Heinz, the head of Marketing and Business Development at Dematic Central Europe. There are numerous and varied examples that support this observation and they can be found all over the world. The AGV fleet at the Australian Toll Group has superhero names such as "Wonder Woman" or "Superman". The automated fleet at General Mills Cereals in the US has been christened with university names. Dutch snack manufacturer Duyvis has given its AGVs names from the Belgian comic strip, "Spike and Suzy". In Germany, at Meffert AG Farbwerke in Ostrau, Saxony, two autonomous vehicles are known as “Hugo" from AGV specialist Egemin, which was acquired by KION Group in 2015 but fully integrated into Dematic in 2017. Since 1996, the employees at the plant have been taking their two "Hugos" for granted, but when they turned 18 in 2014, they jokingly granted them official permission to operate on their own. And the two AGVs have mastered it with flying colors from the get-go and have taken over a lot of work from their human colleagues. They have been reliable workers for 23 years and after almost 100,000 accident-free operating hours, they are still as fit as ever.

Futurism that fascinates

The enthusiasm for self-propelled vehicles is almost as old as the history of AGVs themselves. It goes back to 1954, when Barrett Electronics invented the world's first AGV in 1954 with the "Guide-O-Matic" in Northbrook, Illinois, on the outskirts of Chicago. From the very beginning, these pioneering "robots" have triggered special interest among humans because they offered a preview of an exciting and exotic-looking future. One of the more than 4,000 Bell & Howell Mailmobiles – automated mail robots – responsible for delivering mail in many American office buildings for decades made it big in the television series, “The Americans". But the most hard-working Mailmobile is "Molly McMail". Beginning in 1985 she delivered countless letters at Citizens Bank in the US state of Rhode Island. But when e-mail caught on, it signaled the end of the Mailmobiles. Thus, Molly McMail was also bid farewell in 2015 when she was given a big retirement party before being donated to the Rhode Island Computer Museum. Today, she is still active in social media with her own Twitter account - @MollyBeepBeep - and she makes people laugh with funny status messages such as "Sometimes I feel like my life is on automatic" or "I like to keep on track” and “I'm a big, big fan of RUSH (the rock band)".

Welcome to the future

The intellectual origins of Molly McMail and co. live on in today’s AGVs from KION brands Dematic, Linde Material Handling and STILL even if the technology has, of course, made great strides in the meantime. They have, of course, long since ceased having standardized static ultraviolet color codings as were the Mailmobiles, but thanks to different types of navigation and modern sensor technology, they can now find their way smoothly and without incident even in the most dynamic environments. At Linde Material Handling in Aschaffenburg, Germany, a Linde robotics vehicle has also been in use in the company's production since 2018. The L-MATIC AC supports cabin assembly for 387 series forklifts in Plant 2 and is affectionately known by employees as "Elli". Currently, the AGV transports 40 cabs daily in two shifts, thus providing considerable relief to the supply at the assembly line. Mark Seidel, the head of Procurement & Customized Options, who has accompanied Elli since her first trips to Plant 2, sums up the success of the pilot project: "She has been accepted by the employees, and, as a result, she will continue to run as an integral part of production."

A perfect team: Neo & Me

The autonomous vehicles in the "iGo" product family from KION subsidiary STILL are another strong indicator of how well cooperation between human and machine can work. The basic principle: the autonomous iGo neo vehicle interacts with the operators like a team member and follows them at every turn during order picking. The intelligent vehicle always lets the order picker take the lead. And since it can also drive and steer, the operators can fully concentrate fully on their work. When STILL featured the iGo neo CX 20 as the first autonomous order picking truck in 2017, its marketing department used an emotional campaign, "Neo and Me", which showed the truck as a real personality and a reliable partner. Accordingly, references to legendary partnerships between human and machine were distributed across all channels before the product was unveiled with headlines such as, "What would KITT be without Michael Knight?”

Admittedly, though they are equipped with artificial intelligence like the legendary car from the US cult series, “Knight Rider”, the iGo neos from STILL – even in their latest version, the OPX iGo neo horizontal order picker – are still not able to talk. Instead, they are always at the side of the real hero; the human who operates them. Even after nearly 60 years the machines cannot replace their humans. It is much more about working together as a team – a highly professional and efficient one at that. And sometimes even an amicable one!

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