Alternatives to Automated Guided Vehicles (AGVs)
Automated Guided Vehicles (AGVs) can be powerful tools for warehouses and DCs who are looking to fully- or partially-automate their operations. By performing repetitive tasks such as moving inventory or shuttling supplies, AGVs free up personnel to perform other, high-value tasks that cannot be achieved through automation, ultimately reducing your reliance on an overheated labor pool, increasing overall efficiency, and boosting your operation’s bottom line.
The benefits that AGVs offer have created buzz and placed them front and center in the minds of warehouse managers and supply chain executives who are considering automation. But the simple truth is that they are not well-suited for all businesses.
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If you are looking to automate your operation but worry that AGVs would not fulfill your specific needs, there’s good news: Warehouse automation comes in many forms and technologies that you can use to boost the efficiency and profitability of your operation.
Below, we explore some of the alternatives to AGVs that may be able to help you reach your operational goals.
1. Conveyor Systems vs. AGVs
Conveyor systems were created to automate the transfer of materials—whether raw materials, works-in-process, or finished goods—from one location to another within a factory, warehouse, or distribution center, just as AGVs are designed to do.
Because conveyors have been around for so long, the underlying technology that makes them work has been adapted into countless variations, each of which is well-suited to transporting different kinds of materials and completing different tasks (such as sorting) in addition to simply transporting materials. Some of the most common conveyors available include:
- Accumulation Conveyors
- Case Conveyors
- Pallet Handling Conveyors
- Trash Conveyors
- Polybag Handling Systems
- Numerous sortation systems
There are many obvious technical differences between AGVs and conveyor systems, which can be reduced to the difference in their very nature: conveyor is fixed whereas AGVs are mobile. Considering that, the most important difference between the two is how much floor space they eat up within a facility. By design, conveyors are going to need much more dedicated space to implement than is required by an AGV or fleet of AGVs. That being said, there are options available for facilities that find themselves constrained with a small footprint.
Whether a conveyor system or a fleet of AGVs makes the most sense for your operation will depend on how much space you have available for infrastructure. Also important will be the demand that you are trying to meet; for facilities with a constant or near-constant stream of demand, a conveyor may be more ideal compared to a fleet of AGVS. Of course, any final decision will depend on the specifics of your operation.
2. Automated Storage and Retrieval (AS/RS) vs. AGVs
Automated Storage and Retrieval Systems (AS/RS), are another potential alternative for AGVs in that they can provide the transfer of materials and goods necessary for an operation to continue running smoothly. But whereas AGVs solely move goods, AS/RS has the potential to perform other applications as well.
In addition to traditional long-term storage, AS/RS can be used to:
- provide buffer storage between various stages in an operation’s workflow
- stage orders for shipping
- Incorporate a Goods-to-Person (G2P) order picking and packing strategy into the operation
- And more
Beyond this, AS/RS potentially allows an operation to address a greater number of logistical issues than AGVs: Namely, the question of what storage space is necessary for inventory. Because AS/RS allows an operation to reclaim vertical space by building up instead of out, implementing automated storage and retrieval often creates a more efficient use of existing space while also addressing concerns of labor availability and cost. This can lead to a more efficient use of space, especially important for operations with small footprints.
3. Overhead Trolley Conveyor vs. AGVs
An alternative to traditional conveyors and AGVs when it comes to transporting product or other materials within a warehouse or DC, an overhead trolley conveyor may prove to be the ideal solution for your operation.
Overhead trolley conveyor systems can be either powered or non-powered. They typically operate as a chain riding within an enclosed track, in a closed-loop configuration. A secondary fixture such as a hanger, trolley, or wire basket will typically hang from the chain to accommodate whatever material is being transported.
Overhead Trolley Conveyors are best suited for specific loads, and may prove ideal in operations:
- Transporting empty corrugated cartons, totes, or trash
- Transporting/handling/sorting garments on a hanger (GOH)
- Hanging of goods through paint line applications
- Handling of heavy parts through the manufacturing process
4. Automated Guided Carts (AGCs) vs. AGVs
Like AGVs, Automated Guided Carts (AGCs) can be used to move inventory, supplies, and materials from place to place within your facility, allowing you to free up labor to perform other, more valuable tasks. But while similar, they differ in important ways.
Whereas AGVs can navigate a facility based on a number of different technologies (including LiDAR, cameras, etc.) AGCs typically navigate along a magnetic strip that is placed along their desired path, which is relatively easy and inexpensive to change. The systems can also be modular, allowing for slow and steady expansion as it becomes necessary.
AGVs are also capable of moving considerably larger weights than AGCs, which often top out around 6,000 pounds for towing and 4,000 pounds for carrying (though the exact capacities will depend on the manufacturer and model). That being said, AGCs can be capable of handling everything from totes, boxes, and cases all the way up to larger pallets.
Because of their reduced size, AGCs can often cost about half as much as a conventional AGV, making them an ideal solution for an operation that does not have the funds for a fleet of traditional AGVs.
5. Autonomous Mobile Robots (AMRs) vs AGVs
Autonomous Mobile Robots (AMRs) are a newer variety of warehouse robotics that have begun to receive a lot of attention of late, as operations like Amazon begin to embrace them more and more in an effort to modernize their facilities.
Functionally speaking, AMRs can be used in much the same way as AGVs and AGCs: To transport inventory, product, or other materials from one location to another within your facility. Depending on the exact type of autonomous mobile robot employed, this functionality can be used to replenish stock, facilitate various order picking strategies, or fulfill a different objective.
However similar AMRs are to AGVs and AGCs, they are also different in key ways. AGVs and AGCs navigate within an operation primarily according to preset, fixed routes, relying on magnetic strips and other guides to maneuver around within a facility. AMRs, on the other hand, operate a bit more independently, relying on a suite of sophisticated onboard sensors, maps, and computers to interpret their surroundings, avoid obstacles, and fulfill their objectives.
The Bottom Line
Though your mind might immediately turn to AGVs when thinking about potential automation opportunities within your operation, you have a number of other options at your disposal.
AGVs are just one of a number of tools that may help you meet your automation goals. Autonomous Mobile Robots (AMRs), Automated Guided Carts (AGCs), traditional conveyors, automated storage and retrieval (AS/RS), and overhead trolleys are also technologies that you can leverage to increase efficiency and productivity while decreasing operational costs. A skilled systems integrator can help you choose the technology that best applies to your unique needs.