AGVs (Automated Guided Vehicles) were introduced in factories a few decades ago. Starting with magnetic tape based localization to more advanced and less restrictive autonomous technologies available today. Real technical progress has been made to improve their performance. At the same time, the maturity of autonomous technology for light vehicles and public transport has increased sharply over the last five years to the extent that major car manufacturers as well as internet giants regularly announce new tests on open roads.
It is now possible to apply this autonomous technology to material handling operations. While regulation currently prevents public operations without drivers, private sites are the clear catalysts. This means the automation of vehicles dedicated to logistics flows will concretely move plants into Industry 4.0.
Building on its successful experience in autonomous public transport, notably with its EZ10 shuttle, EasyMile recently introduced the TractEasy solution to the logistics market. It is the first autonomous tow tractor dedicated to material handling within a private site (for example a factory or a logistics center), able to operate both inside and outside in a complex urban-like environment. And here are the reasons why it is a game-changer:
Reason 1: Automation in open outdoor environments
The technology that enables vehicles, for private or public transportation, to drive autonomously has been developed to meet environmental constraints in open outdoor environments. Negotiating a traffic light junction, navigating in the midst of other vehicles, giving priority to pedestrians at crossings, entering a roundabout, etc, are all interactions and events that are the norm when driving on public roads.
Extending the possibilities offered by the development of autonomous technology to logistics and industrial applications allows the automation of new logistics flows: the transport of goods between buildings on an industrial or logistics site (e.g. from the warehouse to the assembly line), including outdoors.
Industrial and logistics applications also make it possible to develop certain functionalities, such as interior to exterior transitions (which are infrequent on public roads) or the interactions required to cross a railway track autonomously.
Reason 2: Adaptability
The evolution of the main sensors used for automation (lidars), as well as the appearance of powerful data fusion algorithms, have made it possible to get away from dedicated infrastructure for driverless operations. It is now possible for an autonomous vehicle to navigate relying on elements already present in the environment. For example, it is no longer necessary to install and maintain magnetic strips on the ground or reflectors on walls or posts.
This makes it much easier and quicker to adapt operations when changing the configuration of logistics flows, whether permanent or temporary (for example for road works). As the definition of trajectories is now a ‘simple’ software step, the intervention of a trained engineer - and tomorrow a technician - will allow the necessary modifications to be made and validated within a few hours.
Given the novelty of the technology and the relative complexity of the installation tools and methods, most installation and modification operations are currently carried out by the manufacturers themselves. The plan is to allow trained partners to carry out these operations in the near future in order to encourage autonomy, including for processes.
Reason 3: Optimization of costs and productivity
A study by Sapio Research in 2019 on ‘Automation for Intralogistics’ showed that the key factors for automating logistics flows were improved productivity (48%) and lower operating costs (42%). This is based, in particular, on the feedback from the implementation of AGVs in warehouses. The autonomous vehicle technology will extend the scope of logistics flow automation, which will in turn improve overall operational efficiency and give early-adopters a competitive advantage.
Automation also allows human activities to be refocused on higher value-added tasks. Considering the transportation of goods from point A to point B within a factory, the high value-added tasks lie in the operations at the goods loading/unloading points. The automation of repetitive and low value-added tasks, such as the driving phases between points A and B, makes sense in the context of reduced margins and recruitment difficulties due to a lack of manpower to perform these tasks.
Reason 4: Safety
One of the key promises of autonomous technology is to increase the safety of goods and people. On public roads the number of fatalities caused by road accidents are always a real concern, logistics flows are not spared by the increased need for safety. "Error is human", and so manually operated flows are subject to incidents and accidents that can lead to goods losses, infrastructure damage, and sometimes even personal injury. For example, a current trend is pushing logisticians and manufacturers to convert forklift truck operations to tow tractors operations, in the name of the safety of people and property. The automation of logistics processes is a strong response to this explicit and urgent need for safety.
To date, there are no standards and regulations defining the safety concepts and rules for autonomous vehicles. The standards applicable to AGVs are well known and implemented. In Europe, ISO 13849-1 defines the principles of machine safety and the newly published ISO 3691-4 (following on from EN 1525) sets out the safety requirements for driverless tractors inside buildings. In North America, ANSI/ITSDF 56.5 is applicable. Even if the principles of these standards are properly implemented, they do not govern the expected behavior when the autonomous vehicle operates outside of buildings. Therefore, manufacturers are required to perform safety and security checks to ensure the integrity of autonomous operations, without currently being able to refer to a specific standard.
Reason 5: Flexibility
Not all intra-site logistics operations can be secured on a loop between two loading/unloading points. Even if this can be the case, for example for high production pace industries such as the automotive industry, logistics operations still require a certain amount of flexibility. An autonomous vehicle "alone" cannot meet this need. This is why most manufacturers have invested heavily in the development of advanced fleet management systems, sometimes dedicated to their autonomous vehicle fleets.
These fleet management systems offer widely accessible, real-time monitoring of operations, but above all allow interaction with each vehicle in the fleet to meet operational needs as closely as possible. The system can assign specific missions, plan a predetermined sequence, and choose the most appropriate vehicle(s) to perform a given task.
This means that autonomous vehicles are also connected. A multitude of data is transmitted at very high frequency and this enables valuable operational information to be extracted and logistics flows to be continuously optimized. Add to this the ability of fleet management systems to interface with third-party solutions, e.g. a Warehouse Management System (WMS) solution that can communicate the availability of and need for materials to be transported, and operations come closer to end-to-end autonomy.
The automation of logistics flows is not new. However, the technology developed for autonomous vehicles opens up new opportunities for intra-site operations. The known benefits of operations using AGVs can now be applied to a greater number of logistics processes.
EasyMile's TractEasy autonomous tractor is in operation at the factory of French car manufacturer PSA in Sochaux, in partnership with the logistics specialist GEODIS who is in charge of the on-site operations. Prior to starting the TractEasy operations, PSA Group was already an early and enthusiastic adopter of automation for internal logistics flows and had developed a vision of Industry 4.0 to integrate more and more new autonomous technologies into their logistics processes. The TractEasy operations are part of the Sochaux 2022 program of improving production performance through enhanced flow control on-site. The main use case is the transportation of parts between the Supplier Industrial Zone (where PSA's suppliers deliver their parts, which can be pre-assembled on-site by Geodis), and the car assembly line, in particular for the Peugeot 3008.
The applications for autonomous technology within the world of industrial logistics are numerous. Manufacturers, logisticians, and equipment distributors are very interested in understanding how to optimize their current processes as well as preparing for the future of logistics. The organization of industrial logistics as we know it today will have to be rethought in view of the technological advances available and evolutions to come. From autonomous vehicles, tracking systems, warehouse management systems, and control towers, the opportunities on the cusp of changing the face of tomorrow’s logistics are plentiful.