In the race to achieve the necessary flexibility, safety, and efficiency that industry demands, autonomous mobile robots (AMRs) are quickly becoming a go-to technology for factory logistics. With contactless robotic systems, companies can improve workforce satisfaction and reduce the physical demand put on people by allowing AMRs to handle the heavy lifting. While these benefits have not gone unnoticed in the industry, there have only been a few examples of these systems being deployed at scale.

Looking to change this, Clearpath Robotics subsidiary Otto Motors recently partnered with materials handling specialist Pulse Integration (Pulse) to show the promise of AMRs.

Both companies knew it was important to carry out deployments at scale because when adopting the technology, users tend to implement little by little, ending up with islands of automation across the factory floor. This framework prevents the network effect that’s imperative for a digital factory.

Determining feasibility

To gather the information that would justify the technology’s role as a viable solution, the partners set out on an in-depth analysis of AMRs deployed at scale. They conducted a global search for AMR providers and manufacturers, and once they had a short list, Pulse and Otto jointly attended site visits with customers.

“There was a general consensus among clients that Otto’s AMRs not only had the performance, but also had the industrial robustness and product roadmap to continue making upgrades that were necessary,” says Matthew Chang, chief of innovation and strategy at Pulse. “Once the partnership was created, and Otto began working to create the AMR solution for this digital factory, we were able to commission the largest fleet of AMRs under a single fleet manager.”

A large manufacturing plant had already selected Pulse as the systems integrator for a digital factory. To rethink the way factories are designed and reduce costs in terms of capital expenditures and operating cost, they were challenged to design the factory with AMRs for material transport at a Fortune 500 company. It took place at one brownfield and one greenfield facility.

The study revealed that AMRs were significantly less expensive than other material handling solutions:

  • 90% cost savings compared to manual handling
  • 33% savings compared to automated guided vehicles (AGVs)

Depending on the investment used (system lease, vehicle-only lease, or capital funding), Pulse calculated this would translate to a return on investment (ROI) in a little less than one year. The deployments resulted in considerable payback when compared to AGVs, forklifts, conveyors, and manual labor.

“When you get to scale autonomous material handling, you’ve removed the majority of traffic flow on your network coming from people and maximized it coming from an autonomous vehicle,” says Matthew Rendall, CEO and co-founder at Clearpath Robotics and Otto Motors. “With an autonomous vehicle network it’s a centralized control system. The fleet manager is orchestrating timing, sequencing, and perfect flow of goods throughout your factory.”

Rendall says the scaled solution also created end-to-end process transparency with collected data. Users were able to analyze data and look for opportunities to tune and make improvements so they gained better control.

All photos courtesy of Otto Motors

Smart components, system design

Part of the equation that led to the successful deployment was the right hardware, software, and services coming together in a single autonomous solution. These components help Otto AMRs quickly adapt to different tasks, floorplans, and workflows with only a few clicks. They also enable a centralized network, an imperative for maintaining overall productivity of material flow.

Advanced lithium technology executes supercharging, minimizing vehicle down time. A management solution monitors the state of charge on all the vehicles to determine the length of charge – two minutes, three minutes, or four minutes – for minimal work disruption.

“Early on in our product development, we were very fortunate to have one of the co-founders of Tesla become a technical advisor for us on electric vehicle (EV) technology,” Rendall adds. “We saw this as an opportunity to minimize the amount of time our network needed to go down to charge.”

This system level thinking helped the company lower total cost of ownership (TCO) and maximum productivity.

Another piece of the system is the attachment responsible for placing and removing materials from the vehicle. For example, a conveyor can be bolted on top of the vehicle. The AMR can drive to a fixed conveyor, perform a digital handshake between the vehicle and conveyor, and receive a pallet from the fixed conveyor to the AMR’s conveyor.

Fleet management software enables lights-out production, continuously processing data about a fleet so it has insight into every robot’s status including charge level, location, job status, payload, vehicle capability, and team. This insight allows it to intelligently assign jobs to the right robot at the right time. Users can customize the way the AMRs move throughout the facility by applying traffic rules including speed limits in pedestrian areas.

“The smart systems onboard the vehicle allow it to interpret all the information that comes in from sensors, process everything, and then figure out what’s the safest, fastest way to get from point A to point B,” Rendall says.

Complete connectivity

These capabilities are part one of supplying a complete transportation network for the factory of the future; the other part is when you are manufacturing every day, the network needs to show up and perform at the same level or better than it did the day before. The only way this is possible is with a properly structured, curated lifecycle management service offering.

Rendall calls Pulse’s services the “best in class, largest scale, enterprise-grade autonomous delivery networks for manufacturing and warehouse operations.”

Otto Motors https://www.ottomotors.com

Pulse Integration https://pulse-si.com

About the author: Michelle Jacobson is the assistant editor of TeM. She can be reached at mjacobson@gie.net or 216.393.0323.