Skip to content
April 24, 20245 min read

Automation Today and Tomorrow

This is a summary from the presentation of the same title by Matt Wade, VP of Marketing, and Nicola Tomatis, CEO, from BlueBotics at the Future of Electrification 2024 conference. Watch the full session here:

In a recent webinar at the Future of Electrification 2024 Conference, Matt Wade and Nicola Tomatis shared valuable insights on the future of Automated Guided Vehicles (AGVs) and Autonomous Mobile Robots (AMRs). Their discussion was based on a BlueBotics survey conducted among logistics professionals and their own experiences in the field.

BlueBotics partnered with Logistics Business magazine to conduct the 2023 survey on how automated vehicles are being used in material handling. It included nearly 200 logistics professionals from around the world, with the of running the survey annually to track trends in how mobile robots are being used.

Key Findings from the Survey

Wade and Tomatis explained that the survey revealed the current state of AGV and AMR adoption in various industries. One notable finding was that AGVs and AMRs are increasingly viewed as an important part of business operations, with many companies planning to increase the sizes of their AGV and AMR fleets in the coming months to improve their material handling operations. Automated vehicles come in many forms, but the survey found that pallet trucks, tow tractors, and underride vehicles were the most common choices. On average, a typical implementation today involves seven vehicles per site.

These mobile robots are quite versatile: the survey showed that in 98% of cases, they handle more than one task within a facility. When selecting vehicles, companies prioritize factors like payload capacity, how well a vehicle can function within a fleet (existing or planned), compatibility with existing warehouse, manufacturing or ERP software, and the ability to be driven manually if needed (so-called hybrid functionality).

The survey also revealed that most companies (86%) don't start small with just one vehicle. They tend to invest in multiple vehicles upfront, usually somewhere between two and five. Furthermore, nine out of ten users plan to expand their fleets within two years of any initial deployment.

Another unexpected result was that the speed of the vehicles was a low priority for many respondents. Instead, the focus was on the ability of vehicles to pick up and place payloads efficiently. Surprisingly, although natural navigation was once considered the future, the survey results showed that this technology is already solidly established, with more companies using natural navigation-driven vehicles than those based on laser triangulation technology (so-called ‘laser guided vehicles’ or LGVs).

However, Wade and Tomatis explained that the survey showed that there are challenges to adoption. Calculating the return on investment for automation projects is a hurdle for nearly half (47%) of those surveyed. Additionally, competing priorities within companies and concerns about the reliability and safety of the technology itself are significant factors. Finally, convincing stakeholders (32%) and securing the necessary capital (60%) can also be roadblocks.

Fear of technology failure and safety incidents are the top concerns voiced by potential users. Cybersecurity is another growing concern, with many companies expressing a preference for mobile robot systems that are locally run and do not rely on cloud connectivity.

Trends in the AGV Industry

The AGV and AMR industry is booming. During their presentation, Wade and Tomatis highlighted several key trends shaping the industry. Automation in logistics is becoming increasingly popular, and automated technology is now more affordable and flexible than ever before. As a result, companies are using AGVs and AMRs to automate a wider range of tasks within their facilities. Wade and Tomatis foresee larger fleets in the near future as automation becomes more prevalent.

They explained that interoperability is another growing trend. With a diverse range of processes to automate, companies are likely to need different types of vehicles, including from different brands, to work together seamlessly. Therefore, AGV vendors and fleet manager providers must ensure these products can work together seamlessly. By achieving interoperability, companies can create a more efficient and operated workflow.

The presentation also emphasized the trend of starting small and growing over time. Companies are taking a cautious approach to addressing concerns about technology and upfront costs. They begin with a small AGV deployment and then expand their fleets as they gain confidence in the technology. The increased flexibility of modern AGV systems makes this approach much more feasible than it was in the past.

Finally, Wade and Tomatis noted a trend toward increased confidence in automation technology. While some concerns about technology and safety remain, there's a clear shift towards a more positive perception. They explained this is partly due to the long history of AGVs – they've been around for decades with a proven safety record. Additionally, the consolidation of the AGV market and the development of more mature technologies are expected to further increase user confidence in this automation solution.

The Role of System Integrators

Wade and Tomatis emphasized the important role of integrators in ensuring a smooth transition to AGVs and AMRs within a facility. Currently, most integrators are the vehicle makers themselves, however there is a growing trend towards the use of third-party system integrators, which could help further widen the adoption of mobile robotics. They explained system integrators can help companies choose the most appropriate technology for their specific needs, considering factors such as payload capacity, fleet compatibility, and software integration. System integrators also likely possess the expertise to navigate regulations and ensure the safe implementation of AGVs and AMRs. Finally, system integrators can help overcome challenges related to a workforce’s acceptance of AGVs and AMRs by working with the vehicle manufacturer toward a smooth transition. Including the manufacturer's employees in the deployment planning process can boost acceptance and offer helpful insights, making the project more likely to succeed. 

The future of automation in material handling is bright. As the survey findings show, companies are increasingly recognizing the value of AGVs and AMRs, and they are investing in these technologies to improve efficiency, productivity, and resilience. While challenges remain, such as calculating ROI, the industry is actively working to help potential users better understand how to calculate this for their specific businesses. Trends like larger fleets, vehicle interoperability, and a growing focus on user-friendly and cost-effective solutions are paving the way for wider adoption.

The role of system integrators will be crucial in ensuring a smooth transition for businesses. Their expertise in helping companies in their region to select the right technology, accurately plan out and implement automation projects, navigate regulations, and manage any workforce concerns will be invaluable as companies embrace AGVs and AMRs. With collaborative efforts from technology providers, system integrators, and end-users, the moblie robotics industry is poised for continued growth and innovation.