According to data from the Halle Institute for Economic Research on the use of robots in German plants, adoption of the technology is still uncommon, even in a country with the highest robot density in Europe. Progress is further skewed toward larger plants where the exponential cost of sophisticated autonomous mobile robots (AMRs) is less of an obstacle. But why is uptake so low for an industry that’s continuing to innovate at speed?
It’s not hard to imagine the following scenario: A forklift driver turns a corner at speed, collides with an automated guided vehicle (AGV), and damages the unit or its laser navigation device. This scenario is a regular occurrence on work floors that deploy AGVs. Now imagine the same scenario with an AMR instead of a forklift driver, or even all three in one place. It’s no wonder that businesses are wary about investing in costly AMRs with little guarantee of interoperability.
The fact is that industry’s current focus is on technologies that are years away from widespread use, and competition among manufacturers has created an “every AMR for themselves” mindset.
While incredible technological advances on individual devices show the immense capabilities within the field, the lack of interoperability ultimately hurts the progress of the industry as a whole — and even threatens to halt implementation in its tracks.
Think back to that first scenario with AGV and forklift. Without practical, cost-effective solutions to existing navigation and safety problems, how can the AMR industry build trust in businesses for newer and more sophisticated, automated vehicles that require additional investment?
“Greenfield” refers to situations where there is no existing equipment or facilities, and work floors can be designed from scratch. A fantasy for many organizations, greenfield projects can offer the opportunity (for those who can afford it) to seamlessly integrate highly sophisticated AMRs with regular operations.
In reality, greenfield opportunities are rarely available to companies looking to streamline existing processes and work streams. AMRs designed for this type of project often are unable to function safely and effectively alongside existing machinery and human-operated devices.
What was meant to be an investment in efficiency and streamlining can create further obstacles and risks on the work floor. The “fleet management” solution, while useful to some extent, is often unable to capture the entirety of the work floor, from AGVs to AMRs to human-driven forklifts and human workers.
“Brownfield” refers to situations where legacy equipment and software are still in place. Often these are fundamental to the existing work floor, and companies are unwilling to modify their processes to retrofit new and expensive AMRs.
The reality for most organizations looking to integrate AMRs into their work floors is a hybrid transition, where robots are introduced onto the floor alongside existing machinery and people as a brownfield project.
The AGV is an example of existing assets. It’s a portable robot that follows pre-designated routes on the floor, in various tracking technologies such as laser, magnetic tapes, wires and sensors. The technology used for this navigation is often embedded within the processes of a work floor, so it’s no surprise that businesses are looking to solve the safety and productivity challenges of their existing machinery, and are unwilling to replace them with expensive AMRs.
Regardless of how highly skilled an AMR might be, if it isn’t able to function alongside existing technology, it will likely create higher costs and risks to businesses — bolstering the “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” mentality toward legacy assets.
Innovative solutions for the AMR industry shouldn’t necessarily be the most unique and advanced technological devices, but rather the use of technology to unify a variety of devices into a single, coordinated workforce.
All-around floor management, as opposed to AMR fleet management, will be key to enabling a smooth transition in brownfield projects. A holistic approach to the work floor that takes into account the positioning and movements of man-driven forklifts, older AVGs, new AMRs and human workers is the only way to effectively bridge the gap in brownfield projects.
By enabling ease of transition, the market for AMRs can explode, allowing cost-effective devices to function on an existing work floor without posing enormous risk to people, stock and existing devices.
Think back to the forklift and AGV scenario. If the driver could be notified of the AGV coming around the corner in real time, they could slow down and avoid the collision. Now introduce an AMR to the scenario. It becomes a much less risky investment if business owners can be assured that their work floors are coordinated without having to start from scratch.
A solution for the hybrid work floor on brownfield projects is one that works for today and tomorrow, easing companies into the future of AMR technologies without throwing out everything they’ve built so far.
Onn Fenig is chief executive officer of 634AI.
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