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Integrating autonomous vehicles with production control systems


The drive to improve internal logistics has led to the increased adoption of automated guided vehicles, but the key to success is assimilating their operation with management systems, CTS spoke to Nicola Tomatis, CEO of autonomous navigation experts, BlueBotics.

 When it comes to automating the internal logistics at a manufacturing or warehouse operation, how would you integrate your system with the Manufacturing Execution System (MES) or warehouse Management System (WMS)?

First, it is important to clarify what we mean by MES and WMS as many people confuse or interchange the two terms.  People can sometimes use different words for the same thing. So, to be honest, for me, the difference between WMS and MES is not so clear. To me MES is simply a WMS system for manufacturers.

Our strategy is to provide an API, from our fleet management on the ANT server to the WMS, ERP or MES. It is an amazingly simple API that allows users to carry out databasing in a remarkably simple way. All these systems do is think in terms of payloads to move. A WMS will think in terms of pallets that have to be moved around and will send some commands to the fleet management system to, for example, move a pallet from position 355 to position 522. The WMS does not care how the pallet gets from one position to the other, its only concern is that the command is given, and it is carried out. In between it just tracks the status. This is the interface we have between our system and the enterprise software.

All these types of systems think in terms of moving payloads, and they give our system the responsibility to coordinate how to move numerous items in parallel. We take care of traffic management, load management, the scheduler, the priorities of which mission should be performed when, and this is all calculated to optimise efficiency. This allows our ANT server and fleet management system to integrate with the customer’s IT system. We do not know or care what is on each pallet or tote, our role is to move the pallets where the system instructs. Tracking the stock and payloads is the responsibility of the WMS or MES.

Are you saying that there are no differences between a warehouse and manufacturing operation as far as your system is concerned?

One must make a difference between the typical manufacturing  application and a warehouse. Take automotive manufacturing, this is a production line or lines, so for us this is usually a loop with the vehicles following each other. There may be some spurs of offshoots for some part of sub-assembly, but the main layout is a simple loop.

With warehouse management it is different, as you have multiple points to go to and it is not a loop. In this scenario you have far more complex topologies, with routes crossing each other. In terms of traffic management, it is quite different as payloads are moved from one point to another.

How does the system handle goods or products that have time sensitivity or differing priorities?

We have several different approaches with four or five different scheduling algorithms. We can allow the ERP system to decide the priority or set priorities. In hospitals when moving food, we can set time limits on movements so that the food is still hot when it arrives.

When it comes to delivering the technology, is that direct to a client, through an AGV manufacturer or do you utilise system integrators?

One important change is in the role of the integrator. Ten or 20 years ago, the integrator was the actor in the value chain that could understand the complex technologies involved and apply this to what were relatively simple applications. But that has all changed. Now the technology is becoming simpler, but what we are trying to automate is getting much more complex in terms of processes. That is where IT software is gaining importance as a tool to integrate and automate complex processes.

As for who manages the projects, in 90 per cent of the cases it is the vehicle supplier that plays the role of integrator. Then we have nine per cent of applications where there is an additional integrator in between and only around one per cent is where everything is handled by an end customer.

What about the claim that automation of logistics is causing job losses?

We had a client in the middle of Switzerland that produced semiconductors and employed around 400 people. They were working hard to increase efficiency because it was expensive to manufacture in that part of the world. To achieve this, they were looking to automate much of their material handling processes and we were deeply involved in that project. This was a great success and yes it did involve a few less workers but it saved most of the jobs by making the plant more cost effective. For me automation is not about killing jobs but saving jobs.

You say that the technology is not as complex as it used to be so how easy is it for companies to automate their internal material flows?

As I explained, it is the process where the complexity is, so you do not necessarily need the integrator for the technology. The challenge is being able to judge how to use the technology to automate the process; to achieve that successfully you need to be a domain expert.

You have mentioned efficiency but what are the other benefits to automation internal logistics that enable you to convince manufacturers to adopt the technology?

It really depends with whom you are talking. We are not normally talking about the advantages against manual operations but against older automation technologies. Our key advantage is that the commissioning process for our system is much simpler; where older AGV installations could take up to eight weeks, it only takes one or two weeks for our system to be up and running. The result is a reduction in cost. For the AGV supplier it means they can sell at competitive prices, while for the end customer, commissioning takes less time.

Read more on Automation – Autonomous Mobile Robots: Can they improve your warehouse?

CTS The industrialisation of IT
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