Introducing AGVs on the Shop Floor? Here is What You Need to Keep in Mind (Part 2)

This is the second of a 2-part series on the implementation of AGVs on the shop floor.

Things to Consider When Planning the Introduction of an AGV System

What to Automate?

First, companies need to identify a candidate process to automate, the material flow paths within the process and the load to be transported automatically. A first estimation of employee relocation impacts, rationalization gains, quality improvements and improved work conditions can help decide which processes to target at this point.

What Kind of AGV?

The choice of the process and of the transported load will largely define the kind of AGV to select. There is no standard nomenclature for AGV types, but the most commonly cited ones are the following:

A forklift AGV

  • A Unit Load AGV

    Forklift AGVs, to move and lift pallets both at floor level and on stands

  • Unit load AGVs, to retrieve and delivery pallets, boxes or containers, equipped with decks for load transportation and load transfer
  • Towing AGVs, to move trailers or trains of trailers within the factory
  • Assembly AGVs, to move work-in-progress parts to the assembly line, usually at a slow pace
  • Light load AGVs, to transport small parts or baskets, for example in hospitals

Which Navigation Technology?

AGVs need to continuously assess their position, which can be done in different ways. The choice of navigation technology not only depends on what AGV suppliers may propose, but also on the environment in which the AGVs will operate, and on the desired flexibility for changing AGV paths.

Light Load AGVs, used to carry supplies at the Queen Elisabeth University Hospital. Photo credit: MrGRA

The laser guidance navigation technology is one of the most popular navigation methods today.  A rotating laser on top of the AGV emits a beam that is reflected by marks positioned on walls. The exact vehicle position is computed through triangulation.  This technology is flexible and highly accurate but is sensitive to dirt and sunlight.

Other technologies include:

  • Wire guidance: a current-carrying wire generates a magnetic field (low cost, reliable and robust, but not flexible and sensitive to metal in the ground)
  • Magnetic tape or grid guidance: a magnetic tape or magnetic spots are placed on the floor (low cost, flexible, but sensitive to dirt, sunlight, damages, and metal on the floor)
  • Optical guidance: a painted or taped line on the floor guides the AGV (low cost, flexible, but sensitive to dirt, sunlight and damage to the line)
  • Natural navigation: using a registered map of the facility and a camera or laser, the AGV identifies elements in the facility, such as pillars or walls, and computes its position according to them (highly flexible, does not require a specific infrastructure, but preferably used only in simple and constant environments, sensitive to sunlight)
  • GPS navigation: satellites are used to determine the position of the AGV (adapted to the outdoor environment, but low precision and cannot be used inside)

Charging station used at the Hamburg container terminal. Photo credit: Wolfgang Klein

Which Charging Strategy?

AGVs operate on batteries and there are different options to manage charging:

  • Battery swap. When the battery level falls beneath a certain point, the AGV is redirected to a station where the battery is replaced by a fully charged one. The swap can be done manually or automatically. The advantage of a battery swap is that it limits the unavailability of the AGV to a minimum. The disadvantage is that extra batteries must be purchased and stored.
  • Automatic charging. When the battery level falls beneath a certain point, the AGV is redirected to a charging station. During charging time, the AGV is not available, which means that more AGVs are needed, for example, the battery can last during all day shifts and be charged at night.
  • Opportunity charging. The AGV is redirected to a charging station when an opportunity arises. This is a solution to consider if AGVs are stopped and idle several times a day.

IT Impacts

Unless AGVs simply move back and forth across predefined and independent paths, there is a need for a central management of the fleet of AGVs. All AGV vendors propose an AGV Control System, which is proprietary software allowing to:

  • Program vehicle routes, using a map of the facilities and of possible paths previously entered in the system
  • Fulfill transportation orders, by selecting an available AGV and ordering it to go from point A to point B using a given path
  • Monitor vehicle statuses and locations
  • Interact with other systems, such as ERP or Manufacturing Operations Management (MOM) Systems

Having a well-working AGV Control System also means addressing the IT challenges of a reliable wireless network and integrating with IT and OT Systems. Simulating the AGV fleet before its commissioning can also bring a lot of benefits.

Wireless LAN

Individual AGVs need to maintain constant communication with the AGV Control System through a wireless network, either to receive orders or send back field data.

The deployment of the wireless solution needs, therefore, to be carefully planned and tested. For instance, if antenna fields do not have sufficient overlap, this can result in the AGVs sometimes losing contact. The industrial environment may also cause interferences or other issues. For example, industrial metal surfaces such as those used in racks can cause a reflection of radio waves, preventing a well-functioning connection.

Integration with Other Systems

In order to fully automate transportation operations, the AGV System needs to communicate with other Systems, such as the ERP and MOM systems.

Transport orders need to be created and scheduled according to demand and capacity. The Warehouse Management System then needs to check the availability of the storage bins, communicate the location of the palette or goods to be transported and update the inventory after the transportation has been done. Integration with other components of the MOM system (Production, Quality) can allow a full traceability of the materials from receipt to final delivery.

AGV Fleet Simulation

Finally, a program that can simulate the operations of a future AGV fleet can prove useful to:

  • Verify that the AGV fleet has been properly sized,
  • Assess the efficiency of the routing and of the battery charging strategies,
  • Experiment “what if“ scenarios with unexpected events, such as a human crossing the path of an AGV or several AGVs being down.


Cheaper and more accurate sensors, better vision recognition, quicker-charging batteries, intelligent collaboration within an AGV fleet… AGVs will benefit from all these advances in the future, making their usage even more compelling and their deployment easier. In the meantime, and as we have seen, companies need to evaluate the business case for AGVs, select an AGV type that can support all the required loads, make sure the environment is suitable for the AGV navigation system, implement a reliable WLAN infrastructure for AGVs and properly integrate other systems, such as MOM software, with the AGV Control System.

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Data Science: Making Sense of Digital Manufacturing

It’s hard enough to understand any one thing, let alone the complex interactions between many things—each of which is constantly changing, through the other things acting on it.

That’s the promise of data science, a mashup of computing, mathematics, statistical analysis, and good old-fashioned critical thinking. Its knack is to detect signals, structure, and patterns from data sets to advance learning and decision making in every field—from the study of the universe and human genome through medicine, engineering, the stock market… and manufacturing.

Data science is the latest iteration of technique in humankind’s quest to get to the bottom of things. As such, it has emerged as one of the “Big Tools” of our 21st century world, alongside the Large Hadron Collider in physics and the Hubble Space Telescope in astronomy—tools that let us peer deep inside, or far away, to peel away the layers of the innermost workings of things.

Manufacturing has always been fiendishly complex, making it easy to throw up your hands in frustration at attempts to uncover root causes. Now, digitization has opened a window into its innumerable variables—by capturing the many data points that constitute any manufacturing process, from raw material provenance through production steps, work in process, yield rates, quality conformance, equipment effectiveness, and so forth, all the way through supply-chain planning and logistics.

That’s where data science steps in, with its intimidating kit of tools: linear regression, density estimation, clustering, decision trees, nearest neighbors, scoring engine, and so on. You’ll most likely not need to know much about them except this: these are the techniques that can decode the streaming, cellular composition of manufacturing, analyze connected elements and occurrences to make sense of what has happened—and is happening, and offer informed predictions of the probability of what is to come.

Data scientists are now integral parts of manufacturing teams. Glassdoor ranked the job number-one on its list of the 50 best jobs in America for 2018. The description of a data science course offered at UC Berkeley gives you a hint of what they know: “… will explore the data science lifecycle, including question formulation, data collection and cleaning, exploratory data analysis and visualization, statistical inference and prediction, and decision-making.” The class focus includes “… languages for transforming, querying and analyzing data; algorithms for machine learning…; principles behind creating informative data visualizations; statistical concepts of measurement error and prediction…”

The applications of data science to digital manufacturing are limitless. Real-time understanding of operational processes enables higher throughput and rapid pivots. Analyzing shop-floor sensor data lets manufacturers make compensating tweaks when quality veers from tolerance. Customer sentiment can be graphed to customized design and production. Supply-chain forecasts and delivery decisions can be optimized down to the individual stockkeeping unit and location level.

Data science will power today’s industrial renaissance. It is the “petri dish” of the experience economy, fostering in its culture a direct, flexible path from consumer want to manufactured fulfillment.

This post originally appeared on Navigate the Future, the Dassault Systemes North America blog

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Is Your Planning Integrated?

Most manufacturers take advantage of planning software (MRP and its variants) to set production schedules and lay out replenishment requirements for inventory. Most companies also engage in a formal business planning process to set strategic objectives, plan cash flow and financial requirements, allocate funds to major business functions, plan capital expenditures, etc. But are these processes tied together into one integrated planning approach?

General Dwight D. Eisenhower was known to have said “Plans are useless but planning is essential” to acknowledge that the real world seldom behaves as we expect, but we must plan nevertheless. The end result of the planning process is a set of actions and goals that guide activities. In the case of manufacturing plans, the planning process lays out manufacturing and purchasing activities (orders) that must be carried out at the specified times in order to have products to meet demand, avoid shortages, minimize excess inventory, and best use the resources available. In other words, the planning process provides instructions that tell operations what to do to support the ultimate objective of satisfying customer demand.Integrated Planning

The real question is whether that objective is properly in tune with the business objectives – sales expectations, profit targets, market share, etc.

For most companies these days, the key planning process comes together in Sales and Operations Plan or S&OP. APICS describes planning in general as a top-down process that starts with the business plan that sets long-term targets for sales, profit, etc. at a high level. That business plan is broken down into successively more detailed views thusly:

  • Business plan: high level and long term e.g., total sales, margin, share, etc.
  • S&OP: intermediate to long term (typically 18-24 months) for product families or groups
  • Master Schedule: Intermediate term (6 to 18 months) for individual products
  • Material Requirements Planning: (up to 12 months) for all products, assemblies, materials and components
  • Execution – production and purchasing are activities carried out to support the plan

This, of course, is a highly simplified view but makes the point that the detailed plan must be driven from the overall business objectives in a top-down manner. Only in this way can the individual activities accomplished day-to-day be tied directly to what the company is trying to achieve. If whatever you’re doing is not according to the plan, it’s not generating value for the company. Note that the ultimate achievement of corporate objectives is inescapably tied to meeting customer demands. After all, they are the ones buying the products that put the money into company coffers that keeps the lights on. The top-down planning process translates corporate objectives into customer/product plans – supply and demand are matched in the S&OP step – which are then translated into specific actions for individual departments, functions and employees. The plan keeps everyone working toward the common goals.


This post originally appeared on Navigate the Future, the Dassault Systemes North America blog

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An Interview with Allison Grealis, President of Women in Manufacturing (WiM)

In the second of our 3-part series, we explore how manufacturing companies resolve obstacles to workforce attraction, retention and advancement in a fascinating interview with Allison Grealis, president of Women in Manufacturing (WiM). WiM is a national trade organization with over 1,500 members actively working in manufacturing industries and focused on supporting, promoting and inspiring women in the manufacturing sector.

ALLISON GREALIS President, Women in Manufacturing

RB:       Why is there a need for a women-specific trade organization in manufacturing?

AG:      A WiM member explained the value of WiM this way: “Sometimes you just need a sounding board and the comfort of knowing that you’re not alone.”

Right now, women make up about 29% of the manufacturing workforce. WiM meets an important need to bring women together, across companies and sectors, to share best practices and strategies for success in manufacturing.

We’ve been doing this work for eight years. Back then, WiM was a little networking group with a handful of participants. Today, WiM is a national trade association with over 1,500 members. Our rapid growth is a reflection of the growing recognition that diversity in the workforce is important. Bringing women together to focus on career advancement is an important part of the ongoing change we want to see in our industry.

RB:       What are the key components of a gender-balanced manufacturing organization? What benefits can we expect to see by removing obstacles that prevent women from seeking careers in manufacturing?

AG:      It’s important to note that not only is manufacturing good for women, but women are also good for manufacturing. The benefits to bringing more women into manufacturing are numerous, but here are two practical ones: First, as we all know, manufacturing has a significant skills gap. To fill it, we need to look at more than 50% of the population. Women must be recruited in every role to address our industry’s need. Secondly, when there are more women in manufacturing companies and taking on leadership roles, we will see manufacturing companies grow and our industry as a whole thrive. Research tells us that when companies are more diverse, and when there are more women at the leadership table, those companies are more profitable.

Achieving gender balance for most manufacturing companies is a long-term goal. But companies who want to retain and promote women into leadership roles should implement strategies like (1) Taking steps to keep the work interesting and challenging; (2) Supporting flexible work schedules; (3) Providing opportunities for professional development and educational and training programs; and (4) Identifying and enhancing the visibility of leaders.

RB:       Your membership is made of up women actively working in the manufacturing sector. Can you tell us why female mentorship is particularly important in manufacturing? Does WiM provide outreach?

AG:      Mentorship is important in all fields, but mentors can be especially valuable in workplaces and careers where it can be a challenge to find similarly situated role models. As it has been often said, “It is difficult to be what you can’t see.”

WiM offers extensive networking opportunities to help women at all levels and locations connect with each other, find mentors, and build the networks they’ll need for success. We host a range of professional programming events at the national level as do our 16 local chapters across the country. And we have a robust membership directory online so that our members can find each other and make connections.

RB:       How do you envision support from Dassault Systèmes and other corporate sponsors toward achieving WiM’s mission?

AG:      The support of Corporate WiM Members is vital to providing the opportunities and programming that our members enjoy. At the same time, Corporate Members like Dassault Systèmes can and should connect their women employees with WiM’s resources in order to better their skills and strengthen their networks. For example, WiM operates a number of leadership development programs from a virtual learning series to immersive training courses. These programs can help support the next generation of women leaders, something that benefits our Corporate Members and our industry as a whole.

RB:       Manufacturing industries such as aerospace, automotive, defense and industrial products have not been very successful at attracting and keeping female workers. What could manufacturing learn from Life Sciences and other industries that have achieved better outcomes in recruiting and retention?

AG:      While it’s true that there is lots of work to do to recruit and retain women in industry careers, we are seeing signs of progress. You mentioned automotive and defense. Right now, GM has a woman CEO and CFO. And, at the start of 2019, four of the top five defense companies in the U.S. will be led by women. Of course, these case studies in success do not mean that our work is done, but they do show that traditionally male-dominated industries are capable of change. There is a lot of reason for optimism. WiM is focused on building on the change we’re seeing to help companies retain and advance women and help women thrive in manufacturing careers.

RB:       Thank you for sharing your insights, and your time.

Now that you’ve read this insightful interview with Allison Grealis, take a deeper dive by reading about the coming skills gap in manufacturing, as well as a recap of the exciting events at the 8th Annual WiM Summit.

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Introducing AGVs on the Shop Floor? Here is What You Need to Keep in Mind (Part 1)

This is the first of a 2-part series on the implementation of AGVs on the shop floor.

Automated Guided Vehicles (AGVs) have been around in factories as early as the 1950s, where a “driverless vehicle” manufactured by Barrett Electronics, in Illinois, could follow the electromagnetic field of a wire located in the factory ceiling or, later on, embedded in the floor[1].

However, since the acquisition of AGV manufacturer Kiva Systems by Amazon in 2012 and Amazon’s decision to stop sales and use Kiva robots exclusively to improve their logistics, there has been a surge of interest for industrial AGVs. According to a 2017 article from a Loup Ventures analyst, the AGV market could be by 2025 “one of the fastest growing sub-markets within the entire robotics space”, with a Compound Annual Growth Rate of 35% for the 2015-2025 decade.

Kiva AGVs move shelves of product at an Amazon fulfillment center

In this article, we will see what drives companies to use AGVs in their facilities, what needs to be considered when choosing an AGV System (involving a fleet of AGVs) and finally what are the impacts in terms of IT systems.

Why Use AGVs?

Today, industrial AGVs are mainly used for material handling within a warehouse or factory or sometimes outdoors. Some typical usages include:

  • Transporting received materials to storage areas
  • Supporting kitting operations and just-in-time deliveries
  • Delivering work-in-progress parts to manufacturing production lines
  • Transporting finished goods to shipping areas

So transportation is the key function. In spite of recent advances in computer vision, object recognition and robot grasping techniques, humans are still usually needed to pick and place individual parts, while pallets are typically transported by AGVs.

An AGV System may bring different benefits listed below.

Forklifts are known to be dangerous!


According to a 2016 regulatory notice from the Occupational Health and Safety Administration (OSHA), forklift accidents result in roughly 85 fatalities and  34,900 serious injuries every year in the United States. When truck manufacturer Scania considered using AGVs for material handling in their production areas, a key objective was to help achieve a forklift-free production, since forklifts were regarded as “one of the most dangerous work equipment at Scania[2].

Forklift AGVs are the most common type of AGVs and look pretty much like regular forklifts. Some models also have space for humans, allowing to steer the AGV manually when needed. Like all AGVs, they include sensors that ensure that the vehicle slows down or stops when encountering a human or an obstacle. They operate at a controlled, limited speed, accelerate smoothly and have a predictable behavior, thereby limiting accidents[3].

Damage Reduction

Forklift drivers may be distracted, tired or simply have a bad day. As a result, they may damage products or hit equipment and structures. AGVs of course are more reliable and can work 24 hours a day. Following the introduction of AGVs, Valio, a Finnish producer of dairy products, has managed to reduce damage to vehicles, stock and site by 90% in one of its cheese factories.

Cost Reduction and Better Operations

In a Lean Manufacturing perspective, AGVs reduce transportation time, which is non-value added time in manufacturing operations.

If AGVs replace fixed automation systems such as conveyors, they can reduce costs thanks to quicker implementation, staged investment and additional flexibility.

If AGVs replace or relocate employees, they can allow to reduce labor costs and increase productivity. After automating transport routes using a mix of conveyors and AGVs, AMAG Automobil, a car importer and dealer, has optimized its production throughput time by 20 to 30%.

An AGV System also leads to a more regular flow of material, with clean shop floors making room for AGV navigation paths. It can also bring improved inventory accuracy if properly connected to a Warehouse Management System.


In this article we have addressed several benefits of AGVs including safety and cost reductions. Part 2 of this article will list some key considerations when planning for an AGV system.

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[1] The No-Hands train, a 1958 implementation of Barrett Electronics’ invention in a refinery
[2] A State of the Art Map of the AGVS Technology and a Guideline for How and Where to Use It, thesis from Lund University Faculty of Engineering for Scania, 2017
[3] As of August 13, 2018, a Google search of “accident report detail” along with the terms “AGV” or “automated guided vehicle”, and restricted to the OSHA Web site, provided two OSHA fatality reports, dating back from 1997 and 2008. By contrast, a similar search with the term “forklift” resulted in 493 OSHA fatality reports.


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