Autonomous Mobile Robots in the Material Handling Industry

April 2021

Delta Mobile Systems recently attended ProMat DX 2021, the largest virtual conference for the material handling industry. Throughout the week, there was a lot of buzz around new industrial automation technologies with a lot of attention being directed towards the implementation of autonomous mobile robots, or AMRs. Here are a few of our main takeaways after hearing from industry experts.

What are AMRs?

AMRs, or autonomous mobile robots, are a classification of automated guided vehicles (AGVs) that have started gaining traction in the field of industrial automation. These vehicles can range in size from small robots designed to assist in moving carts of merchandise to autonomous forklifts and pallet trucks capable of moving large payloads. Unlike previous AGVs, AMRs no longer require infrastructure such as floor markers, wires, or magnets to be able to move around large facilities and can instead autonomously plan paths to move efficiently while avoiding obstacles.  

AMRs utilize advanced sensor technology to offer a wide range of solutions in different areas of the material handling industry. Technologies like 3D SLAM, LiDAR, and advanced vision systems allow for better navigation and enable different methods of cooperation with staff members while maximizing efficiency using existing infrastructure.

Factors Driving Growth

Within the next few years, AMRs are predicted to see massive growth. Research from Interact Analysis predicts that there could be up to 1.1 million AMRs being utilized by 2024 and according to MHI’s 2021  Annual Industry Report, approximately 20% of respondents reported using autonomous vehicles or drones today while another 37% reported plans to implement them within the next five years.

According to the same MHI report, hiring and retaining qualified workers is the largest challenge facing supply chains today. In addition to pre-existing worker shortages, adjusting workplace practices to include social distancing measures in response to the COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated the issue while a surge in online shopping has accelerated e-commerce growth by 4 to 6 years. This combination of worker shortages and increased demand has highlighted the importance of supply chain automation and has made many organizations aware of how AMRs could lead to greater productivity and resiliency.

New Safety Challenges

The introduction of AMRs has also required new considerations for a wide range of risks to health and safety. On the one hand, AMRs like automated forklifts and pallet trucks could help reduce the risk of accidents caused by human error. According to documents released by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, forklifts are the number one source of safety violation citations and, “… About 100 employees are killed and 95,000 injured every year while operating forklifts in all industries.” A potential reduction in workplace injuries and fatalities thanks to AMRs would likely have a positive impact on the industry long term.

However, accidents caused by automated vehicles can also take a significant toll on their human co-workers, ranging from collisions to multiple incidents involving robots puncturing cans of bear repellent and in some cases sending employees to the hospital. Risks associated with traditional AGVs typically involve either vehicles straying from marked paths or failing to avoid collisions, but the increased presence of AMRs that actively respond to obstacles in their environment creates more potential pain points and opportunities for accidents to occur.

While previous regulations helped standardize safety measures for AGVs on set paths, the shift towards AMRs has required a new set of standards. Recently, ANSI/RIA R15.08-1-2020 has established a set of definitions and safety guidelines for the rapidly changing industry of industrial mobile robots. This helpful breakdown of the new classifications under R15.08 presented by Vecna Robotics offers more details and insights on the new regulations.

Final Thoughts

After a week of showcases from leaders in the material handling industry at ProMat DX 2021, we at Delta Mobile Systems are excited to market and sell our intelligent sensor system product lines into the growing industrial automation industry and to be one of the solution providers for the autonomous ecosystem. We are proud of our role in creating safer and more efficient workplaces.