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Autonomous Mobile Robots - 4

Category: Manufacturing Technology May 26, 2021

This is the fourth of seven articles in the Automation and Robotics series. The others include A Brief Evolution of Automation Technology, End-of-Arm Tooling, Evolution of Robotics, Programming Robots, Lights-out Manufacturing, and Commercial-off-the-shelf for Robots.

From automated to autonomous, mobile robots have significantly evolved in the past decade due to advancements in sensors and big data processing. Autonomous mobile robots (AMRs) are slowly replacing automated guided vehicles (AGVs) in manufacturing and logistics operations due to their greater functionality and flexibility as well as their lower upfront investment cost.

AGVs have been used for several decades in industry and logistics primarily for material handling – the delivery of parts to the production line and movement of work-in-process, pallets, and raw materials. They follow fixed, predetermined tracks set by wires, beacons, magnets, or barcodes and are unable to change their route or navigate around obstacles. They therefore can only be used in a controlled space, such as a low-traffic or caged area, due to safety concerns.

AMRs, on the other hand, are equipped with sensors integrated with onboard intelligence – machine vision and artificial intelligence – that enable them to “see” and understand their operating environment in real time and move through the environment without traveling on a fixed, predetermined path. AMRs are designed to work collaboratively with operators, functioning like cobots in this respect.

Two categories of AMRs have emerged: Those based on a fleet management model that move inventory, typically larger payloads, within a facility from a single origin to a single destination and those designed for use in order fulfillment applications. AMRs used in order fulfillment or picking applications integrate the movement of machines and people in a way that is designed to increase picking throughput, and they typically transport cartons and totes. This segment of the market is largely driven by the growth of e-commerce and is growing more rapidly.

Benefits of AMRs
AMRs have several key benefits over AGVs, which include:

  • Speed of deployment: AMRs require no tracking or other infrastructure investment or deployment and can be purchased and running in a matter of days.
  • Ease of adjustment: Moving an AGV is equivalent to installing an AGV system for the first time, and significant resources are required. AMRs can be redeployed from one plant to another, or to a different zone within the same plant, almost immediately. Scalability: AMRs allow companies to invest in automation incrementally. Instead of trying to automate an entire 12-step process with a front-end intensive, expensive deployment, a company can strategically choose only one or several parts of a process to automate and then expand the deployment if needed. Low upfront investment: AMRs can be purchased individually for specific tasks and scaled as needed, equating to very low financial risk. AGV deployment, on the other hand, requires a higher investment in capital equipment as well as time and resources to plan and architect the facility floor layout before deployment.
  • Robots as a service: In addition to AMRs’ flexibility and low risk, many are available through a RaaS (robots as a service) model. This should advance adoption of AMRs even further.

AMRs are taking off, and research firm Prescient & Strategic Intelligence predicts that the market will grow from $29.3 billion in 2019 to $220.6 billion by 2030. Given their ease of programming and deployment, flexibility, range of payloads, and range of accessories, we are confident in saying we have not heard the last of this exciting technology.

The next article in our series examines the three principal methods of programming robots.

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