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Interoperability: What it is and why it matters in the age of automation.
We are now living in a digital world. e-commerce consumers expect goods to be delivered faster and more flexibly than was the case just a couple of years ago.
Organisations, retailers, and their warehouse service providers therefore need to find new ways to move, store, and dispatch goods with agility and accuracy. Add the widespread shortage of labor and you have an indisputable case for automated solutions to meet the myriad of challenges.
Those automated solutions need to be agile, too. As warehouse and distribution facilities adapt to sophisticated customer requirements, they need specialised automated support for each task – from forklifts and high-reach trucks to Autonomous Mobile Robots (AMR) and Automated Guided Vehicles (AGV). Such technology is already helping forward-thinking warehouse teams across the globe to receive, store, move, and ship items faster and more accurately than ever before.
Single Source of Control
There are challenges, though. Automated vehicles and systems are likely to have been sourced from different vendors, each with varying operating standards and ownership agreements, as well as separate control systems. That complexity is not ideal for an end user or hard-pressed warehouse manager looking for ease of use and eventual upgrade, as well as a single go-to control and support mechanism for the entire fleet.
Interoperability could cure this headache with the capability to unify the control and flow of all fleet hardware in a single easy-to-use interface. The benefits for the user are even faster, slicker flow management operations.
Proven Global Expertise
Kollmorgen has been supporting a global network over many decades, with different vehicle types that can run in the same fleets. This means that a high-reach truck and a platform vehicle can be in the same system and still perform optimally.
“Our technology can be found in almost every autonomous vehicle, but you might not be aware of it,” says Johanna Turesson, Director – Product Management at Kollmorgen. “Our partner network consists of over 90 vehicle builders and integrators that have deployed over 40,000 vehicles worldwide using our software and hardware.”
This proven experience means that Kollmorgen experts are ahead of the curve in recognizing the potential of interoperability. The explosion in the physical dimensions of many warehouses, driven by global retailers servicing hitherto unseen inventory sizes and varieties, is one such challenge.
“In the past, warehouses the size of one soccer field were the norm, whereas now it is not uncommon to see warehouses the size of two and a half soccer pitches,” says Johanna Turesson. “There are many different tasks to consider in that environment, such as a constant inflow/outflow, picking, packing and dispatch. They require vehicles with different skill sets and operational parameters. It’s therefore very difficult to find a ‘one-size fits-all’, hence the need for interoperability.”
AMR vs. AGV
There can sometimes be confusion among customers about the difference between AMR and AGV assets, as they can look similar when taken at face-value. This includes the mistaken perception that the latest AMR systems are intended to replace older AGV models. In fact, the two are equally successful technologies intended for different roles.
“Think of it like this,” suggests Johanna Turesson. “An AGV is more likely to operate on pre-defined, guided paths within the space, whereas an AMR operates in a more dynamic, flexible environment and is able to choose new paths ‘on the fly’, if required. The two excellent technologies respond to different needs, so you would not want an AMR in certain unsuitable settings. AGVs work with high efficiency in settings that require high throughput and predictability, e.g. in manufacturing processes. The AMR can adapt and is more likely to be used with lighter loads in collaboration with humans.”
Conclusion: New Golden Age of Automation?
Interoperability brings enormous benefits, but it would be a mistake to assume that the path to it is always completely smooth. Standards are being developed continuously, so many uncertainties remain. The adoption of the VDA5050 standard communication interface across markets and regions should boost clarity and confidence in this area.
Ownership of system glitches is another grey area: are they due to the fleet software from one supplier or the vehicle from another supplier, or the interface that connects to the end customer’s ERP/WMS system?
These questions need to be answered – interoperability is set to become an increasingly important part of the conversation because users want to pick and choose to create their optimal automation package. From here, it is an upward path for interoperability – it started from an end-customer need and can lead towards a Golden Age in achieving optimal automation solutions.