Volume 14 | Issue 1 | Year 2011

To best understand the impact that automated guided vehicle systems (AGVS) have had on material handling, you need to look at Egemin Automation Inc. and its parent company. Part of Egemin NV, a Belgium-based international organization with outposts on several continents, Egemin Automation is the leading provider of AGVS.
First, a bit of background: In its previous incarnation and as part of the global Egemin NV operation, the Holland, Mich.- based Egemin Automation has manufactured AGVs and warehouse management systems for nearly 40 years (it was established in 1976).

Within the history of these two organizations resides the evolution of automated material handling vehicles. Indeed, Egemin Automation’s narrative could provide a fascinating PBS documentary (a Ken Burns-style project, perhaps) and David Noble, Egemin Automation’s director of marketing and communications, would be the most appropriate narrator.

AGVS essentially means that a material handling vehicle travels autonomously, or by itself. Noble takes us back to when it all began, in the 1950s – the decade when concept became reality. “Back then, wire was placed beneath the floor and vehicles followed pulses emanating from the wire,” he describes.

But this was invasive technology, he points out. “For either initial installation or subsequent modification, you had to tear up the floor.”

He jumps ahead about 20 years to 1976, when the newly formed AGV company, within the folds of the Lear Siegler Corporation, was started. The company developed a less invasive alternative. “We came up with the Ultra-Flex Guidepath, which involved a one-inch wide ultraviolet chemical strip painted on the floor,” relates Noble. “The chemical paint strip works in combination with an ultraviolet sensor installed on the automatically guided vehicle.”

This illuminated “guidepath” kept the vehicle on path, as it essentially read codes on the floor for instruction on moving down the path. “That’s how we got started,” recalls Noble. “It worked very well in light manufacturing environments, as well as in laboratories and in office buildings, for things such as specimen and internal mail delivery.”

The first major order for this technology, he continues, was the automation of mail delivery in the Sears Tower using the Mailmobile®. “Later, it migrated into larger manufacturing facilities, for companies like Motorola, Bridgestone and Honda,” Noble adds.

In the 1980s, the burgeoning computer industry began deploying the technology, and in the 1990s, the technology migrated into textiles. “We spent a good part of the decade automating leading textile factories with this UV floor-paint strip,” says Noble. In 1995, a German textile machinery company purchased the Holland, Michigan AGV company and renamed it Schlafhorst Automation Inc. Schlafhorst could now fully automate product delivery in textile-converting factories with AGVs.

The company kept innovating. “We moved beyond the chemical paint strip and into a virtual guide path that featured inertial guidance,” continues Noble. “This involved a small magnet – about the size of your pinky finger – imbedded into the floor about every 10 feet. Knowing the exact coordinate of each magnet, we deployed AutoCAD to draw the virtual path that, in turn, was imbedded inside the computer on each AGV.”

Thus, the company eliminated the need for the UV paint strip. From there, and like the relentless and highly focused vehicles it produced, it kept moving forward. “We progressed into using PC controls on AGVs rather than proprietary computers, and that took us into a ‘Windows’ platform installed on AGVs,” relates Noble, describing a development that took place in 1994.

During this period, the company also made a very important business decision that fostered further company growth. “We made a concerted effort to move away from proprietary, customized components to standard, off-the-shelf electrical components,” Noble recalls.

He describes what drove the decision: “By this time, we were leading the market and, in order to maintain that position as well as to remain highly competitive within the AGV industry – and, of course, to provide customers with vehicles that were better than our competitors – we realized we needed to provide vehicle systems equipped with best-of-breed controls and components. This would allow for a more stable vehicle platform and a better overall system. The customer would benefit and, in turn, so would we.”

Essentially, here’s how this works: The company bought components and products used in other applications, not just AGVs. Other companies would provide the research and development. Noble provides an illuminating analogy: “For instance, take ‘Windows 7.’ It’s an upgrade, but the upgrade doesn’t mean that your Dell computer is obsolete. You merely load the new operating system onto your existing computer hardware. Likewise, if one of our AGV components becomes obsolete, we partnered with companies that provide products that enabled us to pull out the old ‘plug,’ replace it with a new ‘plug,’ and keep the system up and running. That was a huge development for us.”

Indeed, more than just customers were paying close attention. In 1999, Egemin NV, which had become an international major player in material handling equipment and solutions, sought to establish its presence in the United States. “They saw who we were, what we were doing, and realized we provided premium products, and they realized that our approach and theirs would jell very well,” says Noble. “The companies’ personalities complemented one another, with their knowledge and skill sets acquired in Europe and our knowledge and skill sets acquired in the United States. We both knew we could build upon each others’ success.”

The inevitable occurred. Egemin acquired Schlafhort Automation Inc.

Egemin NV was established in 1947 in Antwerp, Belgium. Initially, it performed naval electricity repairs in its region and, in the 1950s and in the good part of the 1960s, the organization focused on industrial electrical engineering. By the end of the 1960s, it shifted course and engaged in automation and materials handling. Subsequent decades included steady growth and development, and Egemin became a leading automation provider in niche markets in Western Europe. Now, the Belgium-based corporation has locations in Australia, China, Denmark, France, Germany, Ireland, Israel, Korea, Mexico, Spain, Switzerland, The Netherlands, the United Kingdom and, of course, the United States. The Schlafhort acquisition was an integral part of its international expansion. “It was a ‘one plus one equals three’ situation where everybody won – the two companies and the customer,” says Noble.

At the time, the soon-to-be-acquired U.S. enterprise – always moving forward – implemented laser guidance technology. Triangulation was the key word, indicates Noble: “The new technology is a triangulation of laser targets placed throughout a factory, warehouse or distribution center. It’s similar to a car with a GPS system, which triangulates off of satellites. An AGV in a factory or other settings, using laser guidance, has a spinning laser atop the autonomous vehicle, and it triangulates position based on known locations of the reflective targets precisely placed. We know the target coordinates and where we are in a facility. We are accurate to fractions of an inch.”

“That’s how we became Egemin, and we have been Egemin for 11 years now, but our core business began in 1976,” says Noble.

Today, Egemin Automation Inc. is the leading AGVS provider, and its Holland, Mich. production facility represents a global center of excellence for the technology (mechanical design, electrical design, software design, manufacturing, installation and support). From this location, more than 5,000 AGVs have been manufactured and then installed. Many clients rank among the Fortune 500. Specific industries served include automotive, electronics, food and beverage, plastics, pharmaceutical, textiles, newspaper, paper and printing, laboratory, manufacturing, and warehousing and distribution, among others. The AGVS products it provides are equipped with the most advanced laser safety sensors available and meet or exceed all ANSI and OSHA requirements for material handling. Navigation systems also include laser, inertial (magnet), natural target, optical and wire technologies.

Vehicle types offered include forklifts, tugger vehicles, unit load vehicles, trailer loaders, Mailmobile® AGVs and Packmobile® AGVs. These systems are comprised of E’tricc® AGV management software (Egemin Transport Intelligent Control Center), the E’nsor® navigation system (Egemin Navigation System On Robot) and communication system. Interfacing with other equipment and/or control systems on the shop floor, the technology boasts a battery charge system and wireless network infrastructure. Depending on the upper-level software and tracking needs, Egemin offers E’wcs (Egemin Warehouse Control System) and E’wms® (Egemin Warehouse Management System) software.

Egemin also provides training before and after installation. “We supply the training related to maintenance at our Michigan headquarters [Holland] prior to shipping. We also provide onsite training sessions for operators,” says Noble.

Continued innovation led Egemin Automation to develop a hybrid man-a-board forklift/AGV, which combines manual and automatic operations onto a standard off-the-shelf forklift to provide manufacturing and distribution centers with optimal material handling flexibility. The recently launched hybrid is available in two sizes – 3,500 and 5,500-pound capacities – and efficiently moves pallets between manufacturing cells, warehousing and standard over-the-road trailers. The versatile vehicles offer lifting heights up to 23 feet, deep-lane floor stacking, pushback rack, drive-in rack and standard racking.

The hybrid comes standard with industrial lead-acid batteries, laser guidance and navigation, advanced laser safety systems, graphical touch screen monitor, Windows OS on solid-state drive (SSD) media and 802.11 wireless communications. Optional components based on specific system requirements include RFID readers, bar code scanners, 3D camera technology, robotic battery exchange system, automatic battery charging, mechanism side shift and automated single/double fork systems. So far, it has well served companies in the food and beverage, plastics, consumer goods and “big box” retail distribution markets. Customers based their deployment decision on the technology’s flexibility, familiarity, reliability and affordability.

“This represents a natural evolution that was a long time coming,” comments Noble. “It goes back to the 1990s, when we moved to an off-the-shelf platform. There was always a desire for a forklift option that had AGV controls. The problem was, up until recently, there hasn’t been a forklift with the on-board electronics and controls that meshed with the requirements for precision guidance. But today, these two standup forklifts meet those requirements, and that enabled us to tie in our precision controls.”

Noble points something else out: “This wasn’t developed for a specific project, which is where a lot of our designs arise. Rather, we determined that this was something the industry needed. So, we got industry input and developed a vehicle that has been well received. This design covers more than 90 percent of manufacturing, warehousing and distribution pallet movement requirements.”

He describes the hybrid as a game changer. “But that doesn’t mean that manufactured, customized vehicles will go away, because customers will always need vehicles designed to perform a specific function,” Noble reminds.

Noble emphasizes that companies comprised of factories, warehouses and distribution centers that operate 24/7 need to look at this type of technology. “It’s a huge labor saver,” he points out.

He does the math: “If you have four forklift operators, each earning about $50,000, and you have four-shift operations, you’re looking at $200,000 per shift times four shifts. That’s $800,000 – almost a million dollars. So, if you invest $1.5 million into a system, you’ll realize a less than two-year return on investment. After the second year, a company will be saving almost a million dollars a year. That’s money that can be invested into other technologies, or into research and development, and into improved efficiencies, product quality and just about anything else that can make an organization much more competitive.”

There’s not much more that can be said after that.