As manufacturers aim to increase productivity, simplify production flow, and make the plant floor environment safer, they often look to automate manual processes. However, as automation increases, the amount of unique software modules and systems that need to work together grows, making system integration increasingly more complex.
One of the latest plant floor automation trends is the incorporation of automated guided vehicles (AGVs) and autonomous mobile robots (AMRs) into plant floor logistical operations. AGVs and AMRs improve productivity by streamlining the transportation of raw materials and finished products between the warehouse and the plant floor as well as between equipment on the plant floor.
While adding AGVs or AMRs to the plant floor may seem like a simple programming task, in practice it requires complex integration. The addition of autonomous vehicles, along with their associated vehicle management software, introduces another piece of technology that needs to communicate with numerous existing systems to know what to transport, when to transport it, and where to transport it (Figure 1). The full power of AGVs and AMRs cannot be leveraged without a framework in place to integrate into the existing infrastructure.
Every organization not only has a unique set of use cases for its AGVs and AMRs, it also has a complex network of customized software and systems in place from the lowest levels of the automation layer to the top levels of the enterprise software layer. For this reason, there is no commercial-off-the-shelf solution (COTS) that can quickly integrate AGVs and AMRs into an organization’s existing solution network and simplify plant floor logistics.
At Flexware Innovation, we understand the value AGVs and AMRs can bring to manufacturers as part of the logistics chain, but we also recognize the complexity of integrating this technology into existing operations. Therefore, we developed a highly configurable, system-agnostic automated logistics Framework that can integrate with multiple systems, from the automation layer to the enterprise layer.
This solution framework, Logistics Integration Framework Technology (LIFT), serves as an abstraction layer between all of the interconnected systems. The LIFT framework, comprised of both an application and data layer, creates a unified, cohesive logistics solution on top of the existing shop floor and enterprise software systems as shown in Figure 2. The goal of LIFT is to simplify plant floor logistics by serving as the “technical plumbing” that allows information to flow seamlessly between systems as necessary.
GECOM Corporation, a company that manufactures high-quality door locking mechanisms for the automotive industry, recently purchased a fleet of AGVs to help move materials and finished product between their plant floor and warehouse more efficiently and safely. However, the company quickly realized the out-of-the-box software included was not comprehensive and could not integrate with its existing systems to manage order-specific logistics.
These limitations made it difficult for the company to get started with the AGV on simple tasks such as bringing packaging materials including empty containers, cardboard boxes, tape, and foam to the appropriate production lines because they did not want to arbitrarily deliver these materials. GECOM needed these deliveries to be based on actual orders being fulfilled and products running on the line. With LIFT, GECOM’s AGVs are now integrated with an order request system, enabling the AGVs to deliver the correct materials, at the proper time, to the lines.
Beyond this integration, GECOM had additional complexities to address. First, GECOM wanted to use bi-directional staging locations at the perimeter of the warehouse to stage loads going out to and coming in from the production lines. GECOM also wanted to phase the AGVs into their operation incrementally, which resulted in some loads still being transported by humans. Therefore, LIFT needed to communicate with both AGVs and people working on the plant floor, as well as control the movement of loads into and out of the staging locations. To address these needs, Flexware incorporated sensors and stack lights at the staging areas and connected these devices into LIFT’s built-in automation interface. These devices act as a traffic control mechanism for inbound materials and outbound finished products, managing the allocation of spaces between AGVs and people.
In addition to making these complex logistical processes possible, the flexible framework offered by LIFT is easy for manufacturers to build upon in the future because it offers the following:
As a result, organizations using LIFT have true solution ownership. Once the system is implemented, the power is in the end-user’s hands to make changes, such as adding production lines or new AGVs, or configuring new missions in other parts of the facility, without writing more code or relying on Flexware Innovation to alter the underlying system. With LIFT in place, organizations can easily solve both current and future complex logistical problems.
Senior Integration Manager
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