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Autonomous Vehicles in Warehouse Management – Is It Time Yet?

Autonomous Vehicles in Warehouse Management – Is It Time Yet?
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Amazon may be the king of warehouse automation with 45,000 Amazon (Kiva earlier) Automated Guided Vehicles (AGVs) in its warehouse army, but it is not the only one using autonomous vehicles in warehouse management. Today, apart from large scale warehouses, even mid-sized businesses are moving gradually towards driverless vehicles.

This blog post explores what driveless vehicles orAGVs mean for you as a warehouse/distribution center manager/owner, what their status in the industry is, and if they have become a viable option already.

 

In 2016, APAC (Asia-Pacific – including both the Americas) was the fastest-growing automated guided vehicle market in the world.

 

What are AGVs or Driverless Vehicles?

An AGV, as the industry knows it, is a portable robot that navigates itself through floor markers (stickers), wires, magnets, lasers, or cameras. They’ve been around for more than 40 years but in a rudimentary form.

To begin with, these were used in manufacturing, but of late, they have been making themselves very useful in warehouses and distribution centers. As warehouse vehicles, their job is to move materials around the facility. 

 

The Value of Automated Vehicles in the Warehouse

The modern supply chain is witnessing warehouse automation in the form of various autonomous driving vehicles like automated stackers, forklifts, pallet trucks, and small rack carrying robots like Kiva and Fetch.

 

AGVs in the Warehouse

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They use machine learning and deep learning to program themselves onto their designated paths and related processes. These vehicles are proving to be the safest alternative to material handling by warehouse clerks (for labor intensive and repetitive tasks). 

UAVs like drones have also started making appearances on the warehouse and logistics scene, but there are only prototypes as of now from giants like Amazon.

MHI View suggests that

 

As AGV technology evolves, even the smallest of warehouses and distribution centers will be able to afford it.

 

There are 4 major advantages that auto guided vehicles can add to the warehouse:

      • Safety: These vehicles are the safest bet for material handling around the facility, preventing warehouse clerks from performing tasks that can cause injury or physical exhaustion, apart from product damage. They can be designated safe paths. Even if the path is a highly used one, the AGV sensor on the vehicle directs it to slow down or stop as it senses its proximity to objects or people.
      • Flexibility: Autonomous vehicles can be integrated with warehouse management systems, Automated Storage and Retrieval Systems, conveyors, etc. Also, their mobility prevents them from being a permanent obstacle.
      • Reduced Costs: You can reduce labor costs with autonomous vehicles in the warehouse. They can work 24/7 and on-demand, thus eliminating the need for training and exhaustion in the case of humans. Also, while they provide a steady speed, they require low maintenance.
      • Increased Productivity and Precision: The ability to integrate with AS/RS, WMS, and sensor technology makes these vehicles accurate. They work at a consistent speed, thus making material handling time-efficient, consistent, and less prone to errors.

 

Where are Driverless Vehicles Now?

Just like in our previous warehouse technology blogs that focus on technology adoption, here too, we assess automated warehouse vehicles on three essential frameworks - the S Curve of Innovation Diffusion, the Technology Adoption Life Cycle and the Hype Cycle to find the present industry status of this technology.

The S Curve of Innovation Diffusion

AGVs on S curve of Innovation Diffusion

 

Automated guided vehicles are becoming integral parts of warehouses and distributions centers as they cross into the Takeoff Stage on the s-curve of innovation diffusion. Growth and innovation are consistent, with expectation of more growth for a few years to come.

The Innovation Adoption Life Cycle

AGVs Technology Adoption Lifecycle

With an increasing number of warehouses and distribution centers adopting this technology, we find it safe to say that AGVs are crossing the Chasm with Early Adopters on their side. There will be mass adoption in the coming years. Automated guided vehicle manufacturers like Swisslog, Fetch Robotics, JBT, Savant, etc., are making constant innovation to add value to these enablers, making material handling more efficient, productive, and safe.

The Hype Cycle

AGVs on Hype Cycle for Emerging Technologies 2017

Gartner depicts autonomous vehicles on the after-peak phase of the Peak of Inflated Expectations on the 2017 Hype Cycle for Emerging Technologies. It means that the hype about the technology is on the verge of dying.

Gartner also suggests that it is expected to reach the Plateau of Productivity in more than 10 years, implying that you may still have some time to explore the viability of adopting autonomous vehicles in the warehouse.

Technavio analysts forecast that:

 

The global market for AGVs is expected to grow at a CAGR of more than 9% through 2017-2021.

 

If you are stepping up for warehouse digitalization, auto guided vehicles is one technology that can help you immensely. While the initial investment on autonomous vehicles may be too hefty right now, with constant innovation, the cost will become increasingly affordable for even small warehouses and distribution centers.

If you are thinking of investing in it, it’s a great time to start learning more about it before you can adopt it in due course of time.


As always, if there is anything else that you would like to know about this topic, or if you need some tips on warehouse technology, do not hesitate to comment.

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Hector Sunol

Hector is a Co-Founder at Cyzerg and the Anser Induicus Foundation with over 12 years of experience leading IT operations for large and small businesses. He holds an MBA in Management and Bachelor's degree in Information Technology. Hector has a passion for books and creating opportunities for others to grow. You can follow him @TiconSunol.

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