As the next wave of flexible, more efficient, and more affordable factory automation options hits the market, the use of Automated Guided Vehicle (AGV) robots on the shop floor is becoming more common. Business leaders looking to stay on top are investing heavily in next generation technologies, combining the use of robots with their Manufacturing Execution Systems (MES) & Warehouse Management Systems (WMS) to reduce costs, increase throughput, improve worker safety, and enable complete traceability.
In this blog post, we cover highlights from a recent webinar with Aegis Software and Vecna Robotics: Breaking Down Islands for Lean Manufacturing. Read on to find out how leading manufacturers are creating a truly adaptive and totally visible factory with AGV, MES and WMS together with lean manufacturing concepts.
Why Are Businesses Investing Heavily in Robotics Right Now?
According to a recent market survey by Vecna Robotics, 58% of executives reported the biggest market challenge they currently face is finding and retaining staff. With today’s workforce, it has become increasingly difficult to find human laborers that are willing to carry out dull, dangerous, or otherwise “non-skilled” factory tasks. What’s more, rising labor costs make it challenging to improve profitability while remaining competitive as an employer, and this all comes at a time where prices for AGV robots are falling. According to the Association for Advancing Automation, the number of robots sold in just North America last year surpassed all previous records, with customers purchasing a total of 34,904 total units representing $1.9 billion in total sales. As affordably-priced robots become available in a variety of sizes and capabilities, and integration with MES and WMS technologies becomes more turnkey, manufacturers worldwide have adopted AGVs as a logical supplement to human labor.
Building a Business Case – What Can You Expect to See?
Manufacturers who are already using AGVs to innovate their operations and remain competitive have reported growth benefits that include the following:
- Reduced costs – Implementing AGVs enables companies to strategically reallocate some of their labor force to higher skilled or value-added roles, simultaneously reducing labor costs and increasing shop floor productivity.
- Reported return on investment (ROI) – According to Vecna Robotics, with a single-shift operation, ROI can be expected in a two-year range. With a three-shift operation, ROI can be expected in the six-to-nine-month range. Direct costs include factors such as equipment, hourly wages, insurance and sick time. Indirect costs include utilities and power consumption, damage to the facility, and product damage.
- Remove redundancies – Typically more than one AGV at a time will be implemented into a facility, so if one vehicle fails, the others will pick up the lost capacity. This is very different than choosing to automate with say a conveyor, where a single point of failure might shut down the entire system. Robots can be easily reprogrammed to change path, operations, or tasks, doing away with the need for wired pathways while providing a highly-predictable form of delivery.
- Increased safety for workers – AGVs are increasingly being used to perform material handling tasks that can be dangerous for humans, such as around hazardous materials or in extreme cold and heat. They operate in a controlled manner, resulting in reduced risk when compared to vehicles operated by humans (that are inherently prone to accidents resulting from distraction and fatigue). With cameras, lasers and other built-in safety features, if the system fails in any way, the robot simply will not move.
MES for Lean Materials Management – Maximize Uptime with Minimum Inventory
As manufacturers turn to technologies like AGVs that provide more operational flexibility for paths, processes, and products, many are also turning to MES as their lean materials management system, or Warehouse Management System (WMS). The reason? Manual paper systems and ERP systems are largely inaccurate due to their lack of granular detail when it comes to maintaining on-hand quantities of inventory during the kitting and restocking process. These inaccuracies, combined with mistakes from human stockroom staff, create problems such as incorrect components delivered to a production line, or insufficient or excess quantities of materials. With MES, the pull for materials is driven by real-time consumption from operators and equipment. The material flow predictively adjusts to the time required to pick and transport, and operating hours, so that you get exactly the materials you need, at exactly the time you need them.
MES also works to synchronize material awareness across the entire factory. Upon entering the facility, material is uniquely identified and tracked at its lowest packaging level, which ensures accurate consumption and traceability. The process flow of materials can be streamlined in an entirely configurable manner (whether to inspection, or directly to stock or Kanban) and disparate incoming vendor labels are transformed into an internal label. This provides added control to prevent expired materials, a challenge faced by any manufacturer that deals with environmentally sensitive components such as moisture sensitive devices.
Combining AGVs with MES and WMS for Advanced Manufacturing Intelligence
So why are AGVs a natural fit to incorporate with your broader manufacturing systems and processes? Our global economy continues to change at a rapid rate, favoring manufacturers that can reduce risk and remain flexible to frequent changes in product designs, government and industry regulations, and emerging digital technologies. Integrating robotics with your MES and WMS systems works to break down silos of information and automation, connecting your factory-wide systems for a unified form of manufacturing intelligence that you can use to respond and quickly adapt to any market or customer changes.
Some of the most popular applications for robotic systems integrated into MES/WMS systems today include production assembly, shipping and receiving logistics, and warehousing. With onboard PLCs (Programmable Logic Controllers), AGVs can be set up to communicate directly with MES and WMS, allowing for better control and visibility in areas such as traceability and part kitting, and reduced risk of flawed product leaving the factory. For example, an AGV can refuse to advance on a multi-model, asynchronous production line until all error checks have been completed by human operators and validated by the MES platform. If the error cannot be resolved within the given takt time, the robot can re-route the part or product to a repair track. The MES system will log that the product that has moved to another line, as well as details regarding the problem that created the diversion. Up ahead, the materials management side can be automatically adjusted so that the part kits reflect this change in the build schedule. In this way, robots work to contribute “smart” real-time value to the larger factory intelligence system that is easily adjustable to short-term and long-term changes in supply and demand.
This is just one example of how today’s manufacturers are combining AGVs, MES and WMS together to achieve benefits that are not possible with siloed, disconnected, or manual systems. To learn more about how to incorporate these three platforms for maximum benefits in in your digital factory, watch the recorded webinar: Breaking Down Islands for Lean Manufacturing.
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