If you want a window in the real, sustainable, and, yes, highly profitable future of robotics, there's a different kind of automated hunk of metal to examine. Call it the hulk-like, little-known-but-increasingly-ubiquitous cousin of the aerial drone: the Automated Guided Vehicle.
Called AGVs in logistics-industry parlance, these machines barreled onto Inc.'s list of the best industries for starting a business in 2014. They are generally forklift-size wheeled carts that navigate factories, processing plants, and fulfillment centers using software to direct their movements, sometimes with the assistance of magnetic strips or lasers. The core function of an AGV is to move things--generally massive loads--in a variety of ways: towing, elevating, pushing, and the good ol' clamp-and-lift.
They move palettes of Coca-Cola at bottling plants, massive shipping containers at the Port of Hamburg, Tesla parts in an assembly facility, or millions of dollars in the U.S. Mint. They can be small and almost sociable--for instance, delivering mail to everyone in an office--or they can be enormous and rarely seen by the public, say, moving an airplane wing from shipping container to hangar.
An Industry Takes Shape
The AGV may be the conveyor belts of the 21st Century but its roots are solidly in the 1950s. A Chicago-area electrical whiz named Arthur "Mac" Barrett, the founder of Barrett Electronics, created an indoor vehicle that slid along a wire rather than a more conventional track. He called it the "Guide-O-Matic" driverless vehicle, and it went to market in 1954. (The term AGV came into favor in the 1980s.)
Some AGVs still follow Barrett's model, but more often, they navigate by magnets or even magnetic tape. Newer technology is coming into play that enables AGVs to triangulate their positions by using rotating laser transmitters and sensors that enable them to move around obstacles marked with reflectors. Still others use "vision," or a photographic map of the facility in which they're installed, to self-navigate.
Use of AGVs is already widespread in factories around the world. "Every major corporation in the world you can think of already uses AGVs," says Scott Kwilinsky, the director of solutions engineering and marketing at Egemin, a material-handling manufacturer based in Holland, Michigan, which sold more than $20 million of AGVs in 2013. A single AGV can sell for $70,000 up to $1 million, so even a one-vehicle deal matters in this industry.
Most of the action in the American AGV industry is in the Midwestern states, in close proximity to Detroit's auto industry, Wisconsin's paper and beverage plants, and Chicago's manufacturing hub. Along with carmakers' gradual recovery, orders for AGVs have been increasing over the past three years for manufacturing facilities as automation becomes more common in distribution facilities and warehouses. At the same time, large outdoor AGVs are moving into ports and truck docks, as the technology to load and unload vehicles has been hammered out in the past five and is beginning to be adopted.
Scott Hinke, general manager of the AGV division at Dematic, an automated materials-handling solutions company based in Grand Rapids, Michigan, says acceptance of AGVs has reached a tipping point now that most very change-resistant industries--including the auto industry and the food-and-beverage industry--have incorporated automated systems into their manufacturing. "These were industries that were risk-averse, and our technology is proven by them now," he says. "Now that it's seen as a sure thing to lower operating costs, you'll see more companies adopt AGVs."
A watershed for the industry came in 2012, when Amazon acquired fledgling automated material handling company Kiva Solutions, which had created small orange Roomba-like shelf-moving robots (some in the industry say these devices are too small to be called AGVs), for a reported $775 million. "Kiva was earth-shaking in our world," Carlson says. "No one can still believe it. It changed the game. Certainly you are going to see new companies developing automated vehicles, and selling them."
A Publicity Problem
But back to those robot overlords for a moment. Sci-fi fantasies aside, the industry does face a publicity hurdle in that AGVs do replace human labor, i.e., jobs.
The counterargument is that self-driving carts will replace some of the most dangerous low-wage jobs, such as lifting extreme loads, driving heavy machinery, and packing and unpacking of cargo containers--jobs that are getting harder to fill anyway. "People literally can't hire enough people who want to work in warehouses; they don't want to work in that setting," says Sarah Carlson, the chairwoman of the AGV group of MHI. "I think you'll see automation growing as baby boomers retire."
And with the AGVs used domestically themselves largely manufactured in the United States (not to mention the complex software systems and batteries that power them) the industry may well create different and better employment opportunities.
It could be expected that an industry requiring both a significant software operation and high setup costs for manufacturing facilities, materials, and transport, would have a prohibitively high barrier to entry. But Carlson, the chair of the AGV group for MHI, says the numbers don't support that: The number of member companies in the group has doubled in the past five years. At a recent industry trade show, sources reported seeing multiple new companies displaying brand-new AGVs for sale. Perhaps since the Kiva acquisition, more newcomers are willing to make big bets in the space.
Seegrid, an AGV maker in Pittsburgh, is one of the industry's relative newcomers, and is often looked to as a success story with accelerating growth. It launched in 2003 as a spin-out of the mobile robotics lab at Carnegie Mellon University. The business model included selling off-the-shelf robotic vehicles at a low cost (lots of other AGV makers offer pricey customization), but with slick vision technology (its AGVs require no magnetic tape nor lasers and reflectors).
The company has grown to 74 employees, with revenue increasing at a 400 percent annual clip. It may soon need an AGV to transport its cash.