ABB and partners combine robotics and AGVs for application synergy

New Berlin, WI - Couple a nimble industrial robot with an automated guided vehicle (AGV), add convenient enabling software, and you have the makings of an efficient, seamless materials handling system for a gamut of applications (see graphic).


New Berlin, WI - Couple a nimble industrial robot with an automated guided vehicle (AGV), add convenient enabling software, and you have the makings of an efficient, seamless materials handling system for a gamut of applications (see graphic).

The possibilities of this approach were amply demonstrated at ABB Inc.'s robot assembly plant here, during a July 24, 2002 presentation that explored, as well, the potential for increased AGV system applications in North America. By the way, the AGV used in the demo was "unusual" in one sense-it was a standard electric fork-lift truck converted to a higher level role through appropriate controls and software.

Besides ABB , two partner companies participated in the presentations. They were NDC Automation AB ontrol, fleet management, and services aspects of the business. Indumat-part of European AGV system integrator, Eilers & Kirf (E&K, Rosengarten-Nenndorf, Germany)-claims more than 60 AGV systems under its belt, with over 6,000 vehicles implemented.

For its part, ABB is a global force in robot technology for picking, packing, and palletizing applications. Its robot products include numerous models with load capacities from 2 lb to more than 1,000 lb, plus specialty products such as paint robots and gantry robots.

Robotic outlook

Stefan Nilsson vp of ABB's Channel Partners Business provided an outlook on the robotic market over the past decade and today, along with industry trends. He listed several driving forces behind today's robotic automation; among them, requirements for increased production capacity, demands for quality, more flexible production needs, and lack of skilled labor.

While the automotive sector has been the historic mainstay of robots, now we must "satisfy the needs of customers in a wide application range," said Mr. Nilsson. This includes robotic automation for the consumer industries, where supplier companies are increasingly looking for partners to speed product delivery to customers. A partner's expertise may include knowledge about the customer, helping the supplier to add value, explains Mr. Nilsson. Growing integration of machine vision into robotic systems was another trend discussed.

Robots plus `teachable' AGVs

The demonstration featured an ABB 4-axis robot (FlexPalletizer 4.0), controlled from an operator interface with a touchscreen intended for operations and for displaying and handling error events. PC-based software allows off-line programming of the system. Interaction of the robot and AGV is the innovation.

The AGV-a standard fork-lift upgraded with electronics and software-incorporates Lazerway Teach-In from NDC Automation. This novel learning function is said to simplify programming for automated (driverless) operation of fork lifts using laser navigation.

Teach-In does not require any installation in the plant floor. A rotating laser scanner mounts to the AGV near its electronic controls, and reflectors are placed along the plant route. The system has a 70-m radius (230 ft) range, with a Class 1 laser (safe for humans) operating at 2.4 GHz radio frequency. To demonstrate Teach-In's scanner positioning accuracy of 2 mm (&0.1 in.), a paper cup was placed just outboard of each fork of a "parked" AGV. After a few programming keystrokes and manual movement of the unit away from the parked position whereby it ''learns'' the route, the AGV returned automatically to the original position between the paper cups.

The fork lifts also can be used manually anytime, as needed in a specific application. Safety for people and products is paramount in robotic-AGV automation. Various sensors and safety devices are part of an AGV conversion. Typically sensors look for dropped packages, detect obstructions, avoid collision, etc. Lars Ryberg, key account manager at NDC, explained that Teach-In is easy to install, use, and modify, citing a three-day time frame for a ''large''installation, including training. He referred to the demo as the ''premiere showing of Teach-In in the U.S.'' For more information, visit

Stefan Hurtig, NDC key account manager, provided a background of AGV developments from its monorail and wire-guided origins to the latest laser-based types. Today, he sees the effectiveness of AGVs in reducing the cost of damage in handling/moving products; easy, rapid installation in existing facilities; low maintenance costs; and low pollution-for example, in clean-room pharmaceutical production. ''[And] AGVs never take a coffee break,'' adds Mr. Hurtig.

NDC has 30 years experience in this arena, having produced 12,000 AGV controllers, with 2,500 of the laser-guided variety. Other features, such as user development tools in a Microsoft Windows environment, and graphical displays to visualize total plant layouts add to benefits of automated material handling.

Peter Holdcroft, managing director of Indumat Systems Ltd./E&K, also noted lower operating costs, damage control of packages, and accident control among benefits of AGV systems. He stated that Europe leads North America in AGV system integration because of more availability of standard systems, giving greater supplier independence to customers. The company's products span six ranges from entry-level to special purpose AGVs.

Other ways to navigate

Laser guidance is not suitable to every facility. For AGVs in general, inductive (active and passive), magnetic, and optical technologies comprise alternative navigation methods. For fork-lift trucks specifically, active induction, magnetic, and laser are the methods of choice.

ABB, NDC, and E&K seek business growth in the U.S., through additional partners, resellers, and system integrators. One of the program goals is the upgrading of fork-lift trucks produced in the U.S. to AGV capability.

Rounding out the presentations were John B. Nofsinger, ceo of the Material Handling Institute of America ( MHIA , Charlotte, NC) and Don Copland, president of Anova Ltd . (West Chester, OH), a consulting company in business to facilitate advancement of technology. Mr. Copland was formerly general manager of engineering at Procter & Gamble Co.

Mr. Nofsinger led off the event with a comprehensive historical perspective on the Materials Handling business, tracing it from its beginnings to where it might be heading in the near future. He employed a broader definition of the business, namely to "handle, move, store, control, and protect materials."

Wrapping up the event, Mr. Copland spoke about the customer's viewpoint. Among his topics was "North American industrial dynamics and trends." Some factors for suppliers to consider here are producing to demand; agile, change-capable products; and customers dictating the rules. The presentation included an interactive session on new ideas and possible applications for AGV-robotic systems.

Control Engineering Daily News Desk
Frank J. Bartos, executive editor

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