Customers don’t pay for parts to be moved from one process or station to another. Still, without such movement, value creation—cutting, bending, welding, coating—can’t take place. If parts don’t move, nothing happens. Even worse, inadequate material handling increases variability and unpredictability, which necessitates larger work-in-process (WIP) buffers between processes. The larger the WIP buffer, the longer the lead time, and the less competitive a fabricator becomes. It’s a vicious cycle worth breaking.

Most custom fabricators make such a variety of parts that they really can’t stray too far from the departmental, process-centric shop layout, hence the need for fork trucks. And no matter how streamlined the part flow, people still spend time stacking, lifting, and transporting—all non-value-adding processes. In the coming years, however, many shops might transfer all that nonvalue work away from employees and toward automated alternatives to the fork truck: specifically, the automated guided vehicle (AGV) and the autonomous mobile robot (AMR).

AGVs and AMRs
According to research from LogisticsIQ, the global AGV and AMR market is expected to reach $14 billion by 2026, with more than 270 vendors serving the manufacturing and logistics space. According to the study, AMR adoption in particular will be especially robust, with a combined annual growth rate of roughly 45% between 2020 and 2026.

AGVs have come a long way since they relied on wires or magnets in the floor. Many in use today use laser triangulation combined with reflective tape to achieve what the industry calls localization, or the ability for the AGVs to know where they are. Traditionally, AGVs navigate a fixed path while AMRs navigate freely in a dynamic environment, which changes how the vehicles avoid obstacles and deal with traffic congestion.

“[AMR fleet software] shares positional data between the different robots, which helps them avoid each other before they get close enough to each other so their sensors can detect each other,” said Andrew Feeney, senior AMR engineer with Perrysburg, Ohio-based automation integrator Robex. Before that he worked for more than four years at AMR provider MiR.

Feeney added that AMR applications today usually help overcome the challenge of high-traffic areas. AMRs can avoid obstacles in sophisticated ways, and they don’t need to follow tracks with physical markers. But he added that many applications take advantage of another AMR trait: They can not only move parts from A to B, but also be designed to interact with other automated systems in various ways.

Read more: How mobile automation could change metal manufacturing