Among the many consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic, perhaps one most keenly felt by the global food industry has been pressure on traditional labor sources. Worker absences due to illness or localized outbreaks can play havoc with the supply chain, increasing pressure on processors. One growing area offering a practical, cost-effective solution is JBT’s innovative AGV (Automatic Guided Vehicle) range; a solution that is enabling companies to save labor for higher value tasks and increase social distancing.
More than simple robotic systems, JBT AGVs feature an advanced navigation system which creates a virtual map of the surroundings in which it operates, allowing it to safety move around the working area. Further, JBT AGVs now come with 2D and 3D cameras for safe positioning and vertical stacking of pallets above the level of the AGV.
According to Mark Longacre, Application Engineering Manager for JBT’s AGV division, such innovations are helping spark an expansion in the use of AGVs from manufacturing areas – where the vehicles would be used to move raw materials or finished goods – to warehousing and distribution. “In the past, AGVs were more of a horizontal transport solution and now they are getting much more vertical where we are storing in warehouses, in some cases quite high,” he says. “It’s not to say that those manufacturing applications have gone away. They really haven’t, but now we are also seeing this growth in the warehousing side.”
As demand for different applications has grown, so has the advancement on what Longacre describes as natural environment navigation, where the AGVs create a baseline map by sensing the features and contours of the surrounding environment. “As the AGVs operate, they compare what they see with their sensors to that baseline map, and accurately navigate in that environment,” explains Longacre. “By recognizing the natural environment and not adding special navigation aids or markers , it makes installation quicker and less costly.”
Longacre believes much of the recent increase in interest in JBT AGVs can be put down to pressure on the labor market as well as greater awareness of the strong ROI offered by the solution. “Companies in the past were looking at it purely as a financial equation where they looked at how many forklift operators they had and how much labor they were going to save, but now I think they are starting to understand some of the risks associated with the labor force,” he says.
“I don’t think they are going to abandon the financial models, but I think they are going to weigh things a little differently. You want to save labor for the highest value added task and driving forklifts is not something where you have to use labor.”