Interview with logistics experts Denise Pohlig and Mirjam Menne – driverless transport systems as the material handling and transport process of the future. What are the requirements?
Ms. Pohlig, developments in autonomous driving, camera systems, mobile communications and GPS technology are rapidly increasing the desire to introduce automated guided vehicles (AGVs). Does automation already make sense for medium-sized companies?
You certainly have to look at this in a differentiated way. On the one hand, we are currently noticing, particularly in the environment of production in medium-sized companies, that companies in this situation are increasingly concerned about their dependence on personnel availability and are also noticing the savings opportunities and falling costs for the technical equipment of the AGV. On the other hand, many companies are not yet ready, because the stability of upstream and downstream processes in particular plays an important role alongside standardization. If this preparation of the processes does not take place, or if it is too incomplete, then the potential of AGVs and automation in logistics is not fully exploited and the often high expectations of employees and management cannot be met.
Ms. Menne, you have been on site at companies in recent weeks to assess the feasibility for an AGV. What was your impression: how can companies participate in the progress of automation in the best possible way?
I can only agree with my colleague. If the conditions are not right, the potential for optimization is limited. Therefore, from our point of view, it is important that certain conceptual considerations take place beforehand. First, the company can calculate the opportunity costs, also to weigh the need for automation. In doing so, we record the material transport processes for the customer, taking into account the properties of the materials to be transported, such as weight and dimensions. Not every material is suitable for transport by AGV. Through an appropriate review together with the customer, we then decide which departments need to be brought on board and, finally, which type of AGV should be considered.
How is the decision for the right AGV made – is there a catalogue of criteria or are the various manufacturers included in the selection process?
Both are possible and are considered in consecutive steps in the AGV planning. First, we narrow down the potential AGVs using the ifp criteria catalogue and by analyzing the material flow and the material portfolio. For example, we investigate whether a pallet AGV or an AGV for small load carriers (KLTs) is best suited for the customer and what performance requirements the AGV should fulfill. The material flow analysis is used to determine the transport intensity, i.e. the number and volume of transports, and the number of systems required is determined from this. In addition to the operational requirements for the AGV, we naturally also integrate the information technology connection to the existing system into our analysis. We then usually contact and integrate different manufacturers in order to be able to plan a complete solution for our customers. Many of our customers do not consider at the beginning of the project that the control system and its connection to the existing system should not be disregarded in AGV planning and represents a significant part of the costs.
Ms. Pohlig, you said at the beginning that process preparation is the decisive feature for a successful introduction of the automated guided vehicle system. In what way?
When introducing an AGV, companies digitize part of their logistics processes. This is often the first point of contact for the company on the subject of “Industry 4.0”. A prerequisite for digitization is always a deep understanding of processes by the project team carrying out the work in order to define the right solution for the company, because an AGV solution is always individual.
In practice, we, as ifp consulting, recognize again and again that especially in the medium-sized sector the focus is on production and logistical processes are not part of the core competence of the companies. Logistics is often still a means to an end here. The degree of standardization of logistics processes is correspondingly low: Responsibilities are not clearly defined, transports are controlled organizationally and not via the system, and some logistical activities are also performed by the machine operator. As a result, there are usually no comprehensive process descriptions, which are the basis of any process automation. In addition to the process definition, the degree of automation of upstream and downstream processes is also crucial. Without automation during load transfer between machine and AGV, the human factor is still necessary, making AGV projects more complex. The first step here is to determine the appropriate scope of the solution on the basis of a TARGET process.
Perhaps we could be a little more specific: Where exactly are the savings potentials now?
As just mentioned, standardization and improvement of logistics processes in the context of AGV implementation is the driver for operational excellence and standardization. An intensive examination of the operational company processes is a necessary prerequisite for the successful introduction of an AGV. In addition, topics such as standard number of parts and automation potential are brought into focus by the project, thus automatically questioning the future viability of the production system.
However, the initial aim of an AGV introduction is to reduce personnel costs. These are to be expected in particular in the area of direct personnel costs. Also to be evaluated separately is independence from personnel availability, which represents a major challenge for many companies, especially outside metropolitan areas. Transport damage within the logistics chain can also often be reduced through the precise use of AGVs.
How do you both assess the situation in Germany? Will the use of driverless transport systems increase in the near future?
We are convinced of this. We have recently noticed a significant increase in interest from our customers, especially in medium-sized companies. The technology is now correspondingly widespread and already has a high level of acceptance in the workforce. These are good prerequisites for using AGV solutions as automation and digitization drivers in companies and leveraging the potential. Nevertheless, the comprehensive project planning effort should be mentioned at this point, which is particularly necessary in the case of grown structures in order to ensure the successful implementation of AGV concepts.