Engineering Automation

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Automated Guided Vehicles

Engineers are constantly looking for new areas in which to expand or improve current technologies. In a society dominated by the need for productivity and efficiency, one technology is starting to become more abundant.  Automated Guided Vehicles (AGVs) are different types of vehicles that are controlled through the use of computers to propel, direct and stop. Using efforts from both the mechanical and electrical engineering disciplines, vehicles that can operate themselves are slowly becoming more of a reality.

AGVs vary in use, shape and ability. They range from automated medicine delivery transports that can find their way around a hospital on their own, to warehouse forkliftsthat can be used to move and store product. While AGV forklifts tend to move slower that its standard counterpart, the AGVs can be utilized for shifts around the clock with minimal to no supervision, as well as move material deemed hazardous or dangerous for a human operator. AGVs have come a long way since the first design which followed a wire imbedded within the floor., They now make use of technology such as lasers or marks on the floor to follow their designated path.

One example of a use for these AGVs are in loading docks of port yards, where the entire routine of loading and unloading crates is done automatically and with precision that matches a human driver.  On their own, some AGVs can hold up to 45’ containers and follow schedules, working almost silently and with a position accuracy of 3 degrees. Even refueling is done automatically when needed.

Mechanical Engineering helps navigate the course

With the many different needs of AGVs, engineers needed to find new ways for them to move and accomplish the tasks of the manual drive vehicles that they replace.Over the years, mechanical and electrical engineers have developed various navigational means of movement to  determine what field the AGV could be used in. Some examples of navigation processes are:

  • Cable guided systems require a cable installed beneath the floor, which is helpful for vacant areas where a repetitive pick-up and drop-off are being utilized.
  •  Laser guided units emit a 360 degree sweeping pattern and works like a bat’s echolocation to inform the AGV of its surroundings. Laser guided systems work nest when used in more crowded areas where the AGV may have to react due to changing surroundings.
  • Embedded item guided. Magnets or barcodes are placed in the ground along a predetermined path that guides the AGV where it needs to go.
  • Vision guided.The AGV recognizes locations on its path and records them with encoder counts to determine its location. With any of these systems a charging station is a necessity to keep the efficiency running 24 hours a day and 7 days a week, meaning that energy efficiency is also a large part of a successful AGV.

Technology in the Future

While many futuristic movies depict AGVs flawlessly replacing a normal manual vehicle in day to day life, the technology is not quite there. Granted cars like the new Explorer can parallel park itself and the new Mercedes has a lane departure warning system that can correct a swerving driver. Right now there are engineering firms working to engineer AGVs that can perform more and more complex tasks, such as automatically attaching to and unloading a trailer, and having the ability to be controlled both manually and automatically. Also with the new Green Agenda on energy, Companies are looking to make newer models a hybrid similar to a Prius. The most important quality that new AGVs must start to meet is their flexibility. A machine that can do more than one task is much more valuable than a machine that is stuck in repetitive motion.

The next step for AGV technology and application is somewhat unknown because of the sheer versatility with an automatic vehicle, but many see it as two choices. One being simple, where programming and design are easy to produce, therefore cheap and easy to use. The other option would be to develop more  complex systems that require a heavy design load and sophisticated technology but in return is able to perform much more complicated tasks that would be either unsafe or inefficient for a human to do. With the engineering tools available today such as Computer Aided Design (CAD), the cost and time taken to develop new applications is reduced, making the future of AGV’s a little closer.

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