Although a large percentage of automated guided vehicle installations—about 40%, reckons Garry Koff, manager, AGV Systems, Siemens Logistics and Assembly Systems (www.agvsystems.com; Grand Rapids, MI)—there is potentially a larger number of installations that can be facilitated by a simpler approach. AGV Systems has developed what it calls "Q-CAN," which signifies Quick Configurable Automation. It is based on a software package that allows a user to quickly and easily design a layout for an AGV system on a PC. Koff explains that a CAD drawing of a facility can be imported into the computer, then the material handling engineer creates a path for the AGVs by dragging and dropping route symbols (e.g., curves, branches, intersections). Once the proposed route is complete, the system checks for interferences. Magnetic navigation markers are installed in the floor, the program is downloaded to the "intelligent" Siemens Dematic AGVs, and the task is complete. "People are going to approach AGV systems on a smaller scale in the future," Koff predicts. Given this simple approach, the future may be now.
Loading truck trailers has proven to be difficult due to the variables associated with the length and alignment of the trailers on the docks. Jervis B. Webb Co. (www.jervisbwebb.com; Farmington Hills, MI) has developed what it calls an ATL AGV—as in "automated truck loading." The key to the system is a guidance system that automatically adapts to the length of the trailer, including making adjustments to compensate for trailer skew angles. And yes, this autonomous system has an interlock so that there is a certainty that the trailer is in place before the ATL AGV commences its shipping or receiving tasks.
Adept Technology (www.adept.com; Livermore, CA) is pretty much synonymous with SCARA (that's selective compliant assembly robot arm) robots, the four-axis robots that are based (typically) on three parallel-axis rotary joints. While Adept was turning out the SCARA arms, most other robot vendors were producing Cartesian-coordinate arms—the jointed types that are used in all manner of applications, including material handling (according to first quarter '05 stats from the Robotic Industries Association (www.roboticsonline.com; Ann Arbor), material handling is the largest robotic application and that in the first quarter of '05, the best the industry has ever opened a year with, orders for material handling robots were up 67% compared to the first quarter of '04; overall, incidentally, of the total order spend of $302.5-million, auto OEMs and suppliers account for 70%). Now Adept is joining the likes of Fanuc Robotics (www.fanucrobotics.com), Motoman (www.motoman.com), ABB Robotics (www.abb.com/robotics), and Kuka (www.kuka.com/usa/en) with its AdeptViper six-axis robots. One of the sited applications for the new units is material handling. The s650 has a 653-mm reach and the s850 has an 854-mm reach. The payload capacity is 5 kg—but not every robot is used to move engine blocks or bodies-in-white being assembled, so there is potential applicability for a lighter lifter.
If you buy an '06 Corvette, one of the things that you'll find to be most satisfying is the chassis setup—especially if you get the F55 option. That brings you Magnetic Selective Ride Control. Simply put, there are sensors that determine the road conditions and then adjust, in real time, the damping rates to accommodate the surfaces. This adjustment is made possible by a magneto-rheological (MR) fluid in the dampers in place of conventional mechanical/hydraulic systems. While not exactly in the Corvette league, European lift trucks built by Linde Group (http://www.linde-forklifts.com/en/en.html) are deploying MR technology from LORD Corp. (www.mrfluid.com; Cary, NC). In this case, it is not to improve the ride quality of the electric lift trucks, but to provide the drivers with improved steering capability. The all-electric vehicles have steer-by-wire control. LORD Tactile Feedback Devices (TFDs) are being used in the units. So, for example, there's simulated resistive torque when the wheel is turned so the operator can get a better sense of where the wheels are. There's also increased rotational resistance when the speed of the vehicle increases, thereby reducing the possibility of oversteer conditions (and a potential rollover).
Airtrax, Inc. (www.airtrax.com; Hammonton, NJ) received a technology transfer from the U.S. Navy in the form of a Cooperative Research and Development Agreement (CRADA), and went on to develop an omni-directional wheel. Airtrax is working with Danaher Motion Control (www.danaher.com), Schaeff Forklift (www.schaeffinc.com), and The Timken Co. (www.timken.com) in the production of lift trucks with the wheels. The SIDEWINDER lift truck can turn 360º in its own footprint, thanks to the clever patented wheels. Rather than conventional lift truck wheels, the sidewinder ATX-3000 is fitted with a different setup. Each wheel hub is a high-strength steel component surrounded by 12 polyurethane rollers. The wheels are produced by Timken under rights from Airtrax. Each wheel is powered, so it's a four-wheel drive system. They are said to be able to handle obstacles up to 3-in. high and potholes. The lift truck can travel (unloaded) at up to 6.2 mph. Not only does it have unusual "tires," it doesn't have a steering wheel or pedals. Two joysticks are used instead, the "traction" joystick for rotation, forward, backward, and sideways motions, and the other to control the hydraulic lift, tilt, etc. Benefits of the lift truck are said to include the ability to use more of the space within a warehouse (because of the ability to require less room for the equipment to turn), and faster operations because there isn't so much time spent having to maneuver forward-reverse-forward-reverse.