AGVs vs AS/RS: What’s the Difference?
If you’re looking to automate your warehouse or distribution center, it’s easy to feel overwhelmed by the many options available when it comes to technology. Between sortation, inventory management, storage, shipping, and everything in between, you may not know where to even begin, especially if you have always done things manually in the past.
One question that we get a lot from managers who want to take the first steps towards automation is: What exactly is the difference between AGVs and AS/RS? Are they the same thing? Which one is better for my operation?
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In order to set the record straight, we decided that we would take a look at both AGVs and AS/RS to explore the similarities and differences between the two technologies.
What are AGVs and AS/RS?
Automatic Guided Vehicles (AGVs) are precisely what they sound like: Mobile robots (such as driverless carts, pallet trucks, or unit load carriers) that are able to move independently of an operator. How exactly these mobile vehicles navigate the warehouse floor depends on the precise type of AGV in question, but typically the machines either follow markers or wires on the floor or use a combination of LiDAR and visual cameras in order to establish routes and avoid obstacles.
Automated Storage and Retrieval Systems (AS/RS) is a kind of warehouse technology where inventory is automatically stored and retrieved from a storage system. This is typically achieved by pairing the technology with warehouse execution software (WES) that manages the process and helps warehouse personnel process orders—which also helps organize an operation’s storage structure.
Though there are a number of different types of AS/RS, each operating slightly differently and best suited to handling specific kinds of inventory, the inventory itself is typically retrieved from and placed back into storage either by an inserter/extractor, Autonomous Mobile Robot (AMR) or some kind of crane or articulating robotic arm.
AS/RS and AGVs: The Similarities
If you’re a warehouse manager who has always done things manually in your facility, it’s easy to understand why you might confuse the two terms. A part of that confusion comes from the fact that they’re often known by their acronyms, which can become a bit like alphabet soup when thrown together with other commonly used acronyms.
It also doesn’t help that both technologies are often talked about together as being solutions to some of the most common issues that today’s order fulfillment and warehousing operations are facing: Rising labor costs, labor availability, etc.
But beyond that, there are a few key similarities between the two technologies. First and foremost, at their heart, both AGVs and AS/RS are used to accomplish the same purpose:
- Transporting inventory and materials from point A to point B.
- Safety because each technology reduces labor and forklifts.
- Reduced costs and fast return on investment (ROI) because of the labor, maintenance and space savings.
- Scalability because each system can be enlarged or decreased with minimal effort.
- Reliability, repeatability, flexibility due to both AS/RS and AGVs stay on predictable schedules and paths.
- They can both be controlled by WES software to streamline order fulfillment.
- They can both be deployed as an answer to the question of getting more productivity and throughput out of an existing warehouse.
AS/RS and AGVs: The Differences
Similarities aside, AGVs and AS/RS systems operate in very different ways, which makes each better suited to different tasks.
Historically AGVs required paths be changed by laying wires, track and sensors in the floor. This requires an investment in time and money. Likewise historically, AS/RS systems routes were fixed within a racking or frame structure. Changes required physical modifications to the equipment consuming resources. It may be necessary to move the entire system to another location within the facility if there is no available physical space.
Today, AMR based AS/RS systems provide autonomy with the use of central software controls for easy route adjustments. AGVs primarily rely on physical floor sensors and controls, but things are slowly changing. Some AGVs can utilize non mounted sensors and controls. Likewise, LIDAR which protects humans within the path of a device is very common in AMR AS/RS, but is a growing trend in AGVs.
The lines between AGVs and AMR based AS/RS systems transportation elements are becoming blurred. The primary focus of the AGVs is the transporting of heavy loads and pallets of materials or inventory from one location to another within a facility. For this reason, AGVs are often used by operations who are looking to reduce their labor costs by allowing personnel to be deployed to more valuable tasks.
AS/RS, on the other hand, are more task oriented. Generally speaking, AS/RS systems function by having material transported to the AS/RS and then the AS/RS system is used to manipulate the inventory or items (picking, storing, counting, sorting, etc.) and buffering or storing it in high density racks, shelves, trays, bins, etc until needed and then retrieved.
AS/RS technologies are often paired with transportation technologies such as conveyors, sorters, AMRs, or other systems (potentially even AGVs) to deliver the goods to their final destination within a facility.
Because of this, AS/RS is primarily utilized by operations who are seeking to make better and more efficient use of their inventory physical space.
Industries using AGV and AS/RS
Knowing the primary functions of both AGVs and AS/RS, it is no surprise that they are both used in various industries. Some businesses that can benefit from these technologies include those in the healthcare, retail, pharmaceutical, printing, automotive, and packaging industries. In addition, incorporating smart technologies into an operation’s production process is a scalable solution for creating an efficient and safe working environment.
AGVs and AS/RS systems also have the potential to dramatically increase the efficiency, throughput and productivity of your operations while reducing labor, floor space, costs and boosting your bottom line.
Not sure which technology is right for your operation? A qualified systems integrator can help determine the RightFIT solution for your needs, whether that is solely AGV, solely AS/RS, or some mix of the two (or other) technologies.