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January 25, 20245 min read

The Future of AGVs

This is a summary from the presentation by the same title by Nicola Tomatis, CEO of BlueBotics, and Matt Wade, VP of Marketing at BlueBotics, at the Future of Electrification 2023 conference. Watch the full session here: 

In this session, Nicola Tomatis, CEO of BlueBotics, and Matt Wade, VP of Marketing at BlueBotics, discussed the future of Automated Guided Vehicles (AGVs), the role of integrators, and the importance of interoperability. The session showcased BlueBotics' mission of helping vehicle makers automate their vehicles, ranging from small vehicles moving 100 kg to those moving 100 tons.

Tomatis began the presentation by discussing the current trends in the market. There have been ongoing discussions around vehicles with automatic obstacle avoidance capabilities. Standard autonomous guided vehicles move on a predefined or pre-planned route, coming to a stop if an obstacle is encountered. Tomatis emphasized that just stopping in front of obstacles is not the optimal solution, leading to a shift toward the adoption of Autonomous Mobile Robots (AMRs). These vehicles have the capability to avoid obstacles rather than coming to a halt when encountering obstructions in their path.

This technology is logical in scenarios where vehicles need the capability to move everywhere, noted Tomatis. For example, a cleaning machine needs to be able to clean the entire floor, so obstacle avoidance is a good solution rather than the vehicle stopping and waiting for an operator to remove the obstacle. This solution is most effective when the vehicle’s size and kinematics are compatible. However, Tomatis cautioned conference attendees about over-reliance on obstacle avoidance as a solution. He argued that while it can be beneficial in certain situations, it’s not a universal solution and may compromise efficiency. He recommended that in cases where high efficiency is required, obstacles should be viewed as exceptions rather than the norm, with operators planning for obstacle-free paths to maximize efficiency.

Tomatis shared an example of a North American tire production company. They had a fleet of 37 vehicles using obstacle avoidance. These were replaced with 30 vehicles equipped with BlueBotic’s technology, and the company was encouraged to test the vehicles without utilizing obstacle avoidance. They saw a 27% increase in total performance, illustrating that obstacle avoidance as a generalized solution can reduce efficiency and performance.

When it comes to data transfer, Tomatis warned about the importance of the system’s design. He illustrated this by comparing a computer, a laptop, and an automated vehicle. Unlike computers that typically maintain a stable connection and laptops where users can relocate for a better signal or use a cable, automated vehicles must be able to adhere to a route regardless of the connection. The solution, according to Tomatis, is to develop embedded technology that is as independent as possible from the network infrastructure, minimize critical communication, and implement a fail-safe solution.

Tomatis also addressed the changing role of integrators, – companies that amalgamate various technologies to automate processes for customers. In the past, integrators dealt with complex technologies to automate relatively simple tasks. However, the landscape has shifted, with technology becoming simpler, and the real complexity lies in the processes being automated. He acknowledged that while BlueBotics excels in robotics and navigation, they lack in-depth knowledge about specific industries, for example, semiconductor production. This is where integrators come into play. He predicts that their role will become even more significant in the future as they become adept at leveraging technology to create value in complex processes.

Tomatis then addressed the concept of interoperability. Many large organizations require diverse vehicle types to work together. Ideally moving from individual fleet managers for each vehicle model to a single system controlling all of their vehicles. Tomatis presented three approaches to achieving this, with the first being the implementation of a relatively simple traffic light mechanism or virtual traffic light called interlock. While effective for basic interoperability, this approach lacks global system optimization. The second involves emerging standards, such as VDA 50 50 in Europe and the Mass Robotics initiative in North America. However, the standards are still in progress, with both having different focuses—one on classic efficiency and value delivery, and the other on AMRs and obstacle avoidance. The third approach uses a combination of both these methods. Tomatis emphasized that despite the good intentions of standardization, a fully functional and compatible standard is still years away. 

Standardization also brings practical questions noted Tomatis. Many variables need to be considered, including the commissioning of vehicles from different suppliers, the choice of software tools for programming, and the consideration of vehicle characteristics by fleet management systems. Issues may arise regarding the guarantee of identical positioning for diverse vehicles and the resolution of operational issues. Until these issues are clarified, standards may pose more of a risk than a solution, noted Tomatis, emphasizing the need for simplicity and a single point of contact for end customers.

Matt Wade, Vice President of Marketing at BlueBotics, discussed market opportunities for companies involved in AGV development. He emphasized that the primary opportunity lies in the market itself, which has experienced strong annual growth of 15% to 35%. However, he pointed out that the market is still in its early stages, with a significant number of players. Consolidation is underway and expected to continue. This means that for investors looking to use automated vehicles in their facilities or develop them, the main challenge is finding a trustworthy and reliable partner that will stay strong in the industry for the next five to ten years.

Wade explained that historically, AGVs were mainly used in manufacturing, particularly in automotive. However, the rise of e-commerce, with robots like Kiva (now Amazon Robotics) in fulfillment centers, has skewed recent trends towards warehousing. Looking ahead, there is a trend of more outdoor AGV use. This presents a more complex challenge that requires advanced technology. The outdoor use cases include moving payloads between buildings, linking logistics and production, and applications in various industries such as aerospace and airports.

Opportunities are growing as the AGV industry continues to evolve. As highlighted by Tomatis and Wade during the presentation, achieving success in the AGV industry requires a multifaceted approach. It starts with a focus on maximizing efficiency and tailoring solutions to the unique requirements of each use case. This involves designing systems that exhibit a high degree of independence from network infrastructure, ensuring robust performance in diverse operational environments. Moving into the future, Integrators will play an important role in amalgamating various technologies to automate complex processes effectively. The ongoing conversation around interoperability underscores the advantages of having a single point of contact for end customers. However, there are unresolved issues that require clarification for standardization to be successful. As BlueBotics continues to innovate in this field, it’s clear that the future of AGVs is promising and ripe with opportunities.