Hitting 1 Million Miles – Automation on Factory Floor
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In April, Seegrid, the maker of connected self-driving vehicles for materials handling, made a big announcement. Its fleet logged 1 million miles in warehouses, distribution center and factories around the country without a single personnel safety incident. The company supplies vehicles to GM, Boeing, Whirlpool, CAT, BMW, Raymond and others.
So IndustryWeek talked to Jeff Christensen, vice president of Product, to learn about the technology and what the company sees for the future.
IW: What were the key factors in meeting the 1 million mile mark?
JC: Safety is a vital concern,so being able to provide a technology that is field-tested is crucial. That 1 million miles of accident-free material delivery represent distance traveled in production use at actual sites—not in a testing facility.
Our self-driving vehicles were developed with a number of fail-safes that ensure our vehicles can always see what’s going on around them, and will always stop if someone is in their path. We also provide comprehensive training for employees so they can confidently and safely operate the vehicles. Before our vehicles ship, we extensively stress-test the quality of both our production materials and finalized trucks to ensure they can withstand conditions that far surpass any they’ll face in real-world applications.
IW: What is the ROI for this type of technology?
JC: We have extensive experience working with large companies, and we’ve successfully overcome a wide range of obstacles related to automation, change management, and adoption. Our application engineers are experts in addressing material handling applications of all complexities. They have a thorough, tested process to analyze material flow, recommend a solution, and calculate return on investment.
Our vehicles are an extension of the team at real production facilities—working around the clock—up to 24 hours a day. We will help companies by closely monitoring data to evaluate vehicle performance and business results.Typically, companies can achieve a return on investment within 6 to 24 months of installation and make significant productivity gains while reducing manned travel, improving safety, and minimizing product damage.
IW: The idea behind your technology, created by Dr. Moravec, was very unusual at the time it was created and offered to the material handling industry. Can you explain the underpinnings of the technology?
JC: Our self-driving vehicles are the brainchild of Dr. Hans Moravec, who spent decades perfecting vision technology at Stanford University and the Robotics Institute of Carnegie Mellon University. Each Seegrid vehicle is equipped with five pairs of stereoscopic cameras—arranged in pairs just like human eyes—to capture and build a detailed, 360-degree map of the world around them.
The ten cameras on our vision guided vehicles (VGVs) stream data-rich visual information to powerful computer systems onboard each vehicle. By analyzing thousands of data points per second from the cameras, the vehicle can expertly navigate—even if the environment around it changes. The vehicles themselves, most of which operate simultaneously alongside human coworkers on a facility floor, are also connected to our fleet management software, which provides real-time updates and performance metrics, enabling human operators to control an entire fleet of self-driving vehicles.
IW: As the technology evolves what important features and benefits are it bringing to the industry?
JC: Robots are designed specifically to excel at routine and repetitive tasks. By taking on the role of ceaselessly hauling up to 10-thousand-pound loads back and forth within factories and distribution centers, our VGVs provide companies with consistently higher levels of output while mitigating the safety risks of human drivers, which are costly.
With human-driven forklifts, it is difficult to precisely measure performance data. Because our self-driving vehicles are continuously uploading usage and productivity data, operators can monitor and adjust material flow in real time. As more data is gathered and analyzed, our VGVs help companies streamline their supply chains over time.
And finally, whenever manufacturers and distributors consider installing new technologies, they’re often concerned about having to halt production to implement the new system. For many companies, just a few days of downtime can cost millions. That’s not the case with our vehicles. A company can drive one of our vehicles onto the facility floor, train it themselves in minutes, and make adjustments on the fly as needed—all while production is running.
IW: What will this field look like over the next three years?
JC:: Although the concept of automating the supply chain isn’t new, many companies are still trying to identify how to integrate automation into their facilities to gain real efficiencies and ROI. Increasingly, companies will learn from the data collected by connected technologies like self-driving vehicles and gain operational insights that allow them to optimize their processes. We expect increased adoption of automation technologies like VGVs by companies looking to move towards the factory of the future.
IW: As you talk to companies about self-guided vehicles and Industry 4.0, what are the perceptions in the field that you need to overcome, or you need to educate the industry about?
JC: There’s often a perception that automation is an all-or-nothing strategy: that companies need to invest millions of dollars into a huge installation, retooling, and training initiative before they start to see the payoff. In reality, if you start with just one self-driving vehicle that requires no infrastructure changes within your facility, you can begin your path toward Industry 4.0 today and continue to build your fleet incrementally. Once you automate some aspects of production and begin to the see results, it will become clear that the ROI justifies adding more automation.
JC: Identify opportunities for improvement and start small. If you’re just getting started with automating material movement, we often recommend that you initially invest in one to five self-driving vehicles. Once you start seeing results—and once your human workforce understands that these robots are there to make their jobs easier—then examine other areas to automate. Your path to the connected world should be well-planned and incremental.IW: What best practices can you offer companies who are moving into the connected world?