Steering a New Course
A roll clamp-equipped forklift stores and retrieves large newsprint rolls.
A unique mobile platform moves a massive 12-m-long, 18,000-kg vehicle through the production process at an automotive manufacturing facility.
A specialized vehicle transports heavy cathode blanks in a copper refinery/precious metals plant where high temperatures and chemical exposure are a fact of life.
What do these scenarios have in common? There's no one behind the wheel. These machines are automatic (or automated) guided vehicles, and they go about their business controlled - either individually or in combination - by wires, magnets, lasers and computer programs. No driver required.
The Material Handling Institute, the primary trade association for the automatic guided vehicle industry, defines AGVs as "computer-controlled wheel-based load carriers (normally battery powered) that run on the plant floor (or if outdoors, on a paved area) without the need for an onboard operator or driver." They are used in a wide variety of industries, among them automotive, chemicals and plastics, healthcare, commercial printing, paper, food and beverage, and warehouse and distribution.
AGVs have been in use for decades - since the early 1950s, in fact. However, as their technical sophistication has grown, so has the realization among industry stakeholders that universal standards for evaluating AGV capabilities and performance would benefit both equipment manufacturers and end users. This realization is the impetus behind a new technical committee to establish such standards under the aegis of ASTM International.
AGVs are as diverse as the work environments in which they operate. Their physical design can vary from basic forklift-type vehicles to massive rolling platforms with integrated roller conveyors, to low profile configurations that fit under production lines and transfer workpieces to the next step in the manufacturing process.
The typical driverless vehicle navigates via laser guidance technology, with targets located throughout the plant floor or warehouse that pinpoint its exact location. The AGV's software coordinates its guidepath - a specific route through the facility (e.g., from a rack of stacked pallets to a loading dock) - based on incoming orders and the movements of other vehicles in the facility.
Numerous case studies compiled by MHI enumerate the benefits of AGVs, including improved process flow, reduced material damage from mishandling, seamless interface between inventory management software and the vehicle's onboard system, and the flexibility to modify the "choreography" of vehicle movements as production requirements evolve.
Another important benefit of AGV systems is the potential for improved worker safety. In busy manufacturing plants and distribution warehouses where forklifts, electric carts and people are zipping hither and yon, AGVs can be programmed to follow predetermined paths at specific times, reducing the chances that a collision could occur. Such vehicles are also equipped with sensors so they'll stop automatically if something - or more important, someone - ventures into their path.
AGVs can also be designed to perform in hazardous work environments, such as the copper refinery/precious metals plant mentioned above. Transporting raw materials within the plant more efficiently while reducing employee exposure to high heat and chemicals like hydrochloric acid results in obvious benefits in terms of both human resources and production throughput; in fact, this plant cut its metal production process cycle from 45 days to five days after implementing an AGV program.
Safety has become more of an issue as the use of AGVs has spread. Roger Bostelman is senior engineer, mobile robots for smart manufacturing, at the National Institute of Standards and Technology, Gaithersburg, Md., which has played a key role in disseminating technology developed for mobile military robots to the private sector.
"As advancements such as path-free ranging, 2D (laser) and 3D (light) detection and ranging, sensor integration, and object detection and avoidance have been adapted for private industry, safety concerns have increased," says Bostelman. These concerns, among others, have been and continue to be addressed through the American National Standards Institute and the Industrial Truck Standards Development Foundation, which established ANSI/ITSDF B56.5-2012, Safety Standard for Driverless, Automatic Guided Industrial Vehicles and Automated Functions of Manned Industrial Vehicles.
"I serve on the B56.5 AGV safety committee to support and improve the standard to today's capabilities. However, performance is not a B56.5 concern, only safety," he says. "Test methods to compare AGV capabilities are needed."
In order to create a forum for the development of performance-related standards, Bostelman, after preliminary discussions with key industry stakeholders, contacted ASTM International in January 2013. At a planning meeting held in May of last year, those present - representing key constituencies that included manufacturers (Kollmorgen, Jervis Webb, Elletric80, SICK Inc., JBT Corp.), NIST and MHI - agreed to hold an organizational meeting for the activity within ASTM in October.
One of the challenges facing any effort to develop new standards in an evolving industry is gaining consensus from stakeholders with different agendas. Questions can also arise from manufacturers who misunderstand the voluntary nature of the process and see it as a government-driven regulatory exercise that will end up telling them how to make their products. These and other concerns were expressed at the October organizational meeting.
As the NIST point man, Bostelman strove to allay the misgivings of AGV manufacturers in a document sent to meeting attendees in mid-November, pointing out the crucial difference between standard test methods and standard equipment specifications. The former focus on measuring a machine's capabilities; the ultimate goal of the new ASTM technical committee, is to arrive at agreed-upon ways to test - and compare - these capabilities. Equipment specifications will remain the unique and proprietary prerogative of individual AGV manufacturers.
Bostelman also pointed out that NIST is not a regulatory agency and selected ASTM based on its expertise in managing the development of standards, and only after conversations with stakeholders revealed solid support for the effort.
As director of developmental operations at ASTM International, Pat Picariello has managed this process before. "Developing standards in a space that doesn't have existing standards is always a challenge," he says. "The goal is to become a microcosm of the industry, with all relevant parties involved. People are interested, but they often want to wait and see what happens. They'll hop in throughout the evolution of the activity."
The efforts of Bostelman, Picariello and others supporting the effort paid off in January at the second organizational meeting, which was attended by a number of major AGV end-users - including the U.S. Postal Service, Pepsico and General Mills - in addition to Microsoft (a supplier of Windows embedded operating systems used in many AGVs), vehicle manufacturers, NIST and MHI. The decision was made to officially organize the activity within ASTM International.
The committee's name - ASTM Committee F45 on Driverless Automatic Guided Industrial Vehicles - scope, and structure (see below) were subsequently submitted to ASTM's Committee on Technical Committee Operations and approved at COTCO's March meeting. ASTM's board of directors gave the final go-ahead at its April meeting.
Now the real work begins. Committee F45 has identified a variety of potential standards-related topics, including terminology; specifications for different navigation technologies; a practice for determining maintenance costs, minimum quality levels, obstacle detection and avoidance, and distinctions between interactive AGVs and stand-alone machines; test methods for battery life and vibration analysis (surfaces); and speed control (performance levels).
Microsoft's Gershon Parent, principal software design engineer/robotics, sums up the importance of this initiative: "As AGVs become more mainstream, having standard methods for evaluation will be critical to achieving commercial success. Customers will want an easy-to-understand benchmark or metrics they can use to evaluate solutions in the marketplace. As a technology provider you also then have a yardstick with which to measure your own solution and communicate with customers."
NIST's Bostelman notes that having standard test methods in place will help AGV manufacturers - and their software partners, like Microsoft - adapt the technology to new markets, such as unstructured environments with workers present. And Picariello points out that the makers of AGVs will benefit from "the marketing cachet of being able to say their products meet the standards."
The ultimate goal will be a mutually beneficial outcome that expands the market for automatic guided vehicles while enabling end users to more easily determine which AGV is best for their particular application.
Jack Maxwell is a freelance writer based in Westmont, N.J.
The development of standardized nomenclature and definitions of terms, recommended practices, guides, test methods, specifications and performance standards for driverless automatic guided industrial vehicles. The committee will encourage research in this field and sponsor symposia, workshops and publications to facilitate the development of such standards. The work of this committee will be coordinated with other ASTM technical committees and other national and international organizations having mutual or related interests.