by Jenny Knodell, IQS Editor
Automated guided vehicles have re-invented the manufacturing industry as we know it. Before 1950, all indoor vehicles used to transport loads in factories and plants were operated by workers, who were prone to human error. The first unmanned vehicle was introduced over half a century ago in the hometown of IQS—Grand Rapids, Michigan. It was a tow truck that followed the path of a wire, which guided it through a manufacturing facility. Next came AGVs that followed an electromagnetic wire buried in the facility floor. This was the main method of controlling automated vehicles until 10 years ago. Since then, nearly all AGVs have been guided by lasers—which don’t take up space or require ripping up the floor to install. They are faster, more efficient and greatly reduce labor costs for any industry.
Laser guided vehicles are computer-controlled mobile transport units which use mounted laser scanners that emit a laser that reflects back from targets. This causes them to run along a specific pathway continuously. They don’t make mistakes, don’t need lunch breaks and require little maintenance. Laser AGVs can even turn sharp corners and spin around. They follow two different types of laser paths: modulated, which gives higher accuracy and greater range, and pulsed, which emit light in the form of optical pulses. These vehicles are so useful, they are even used in larger hospitals to carry equipment, medication and patient meals around hallways.
While these vehicles are extremely helpful and efficient, there is one major concern—safety. Because they are unmanned, AGVs lack the human eye and judgment needed to prevent an accident. Imagine working around these machines. Would you feel comfortable? Would you be paranoid that, if you accidently stand in the path of an unmanned automated vehicle, it would run you over? These are all valid concerns. However, modern technology has almost eliminated these workplace dangers with the use of sensors, obstacle detection and safety bumpers. Today, all self guided vehicles comply with strict ANSI and OSHA safety standards.
To alert workers of the AGV path, they are all clearly marked on the floor, usually with bright paint or tape. Even if an absent minded or distracted worker finds themselves standing in the path, with the vehicle headed straight for them at top speed, they are still safe, thanks to a number of different safety features. The traditional method of using large mechanical bumpers is the old standby for many vehicle manufacturers. They take up a lot of space, and automatically stop the vehicle if any contact is made. Electronic/optical bumpers are far more popular these days. They don’t take up any space and are able to program their detection fields, which can slow or stop the vehicle. They use lasers and allow increased speed and optimal maneuverability because their object detection fields are so reliable.
If an AGV is headed in the direction of a person, some debris, equipment, racks, pallets, forklifts, ect, they immediately begin to slow down. Some sound an audible signal, while others are equipped with warning lights. Since they use lasers, these safety bumpers take up no extra space and provide a consistent and reliable performance. All newly constructed manufacturing and industrial facilities are incorporating AGV paths into the building design. Now that they are completely safe to work around, automated guided vehicles are an integral and beneficial aspect of the manufacturing industry.