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Robotic Vehicles Made With Printers in Mind

April 1998
CHALFONT, PA—At its recent open house, FMC Corp. demonstrated that automatic-guided vehicles (AGVs) are now being designed with the printing industry in mind.

Technological advancements and streamlined, flexible designs are making AGVs more practical and more affordable for printing and publishing operations.

Major newspapers such as the New York Times, Washington Post and Miami Herald have been pioneers in the use of AGVs for several years. Due to the nature and size of their business, back-end automation is a necessity rather than luxury.

However, that is not usually the case in the printing industry, where businesses typically aren't the size of small cities and back-end operations take a backseat to front-end automation. The cost of these robotic material-handling systems was difficult for printers to justify. Until now.

FMC, along with IMC America (FMC's representative in the commercial printing industry), invited industry experts and representatives from printers—including R.R. Donnelley & Sons, Fry Communications, Quebecor Printing, Spencer Press and World Color Press—to witness firsthand how second-generation evolution has significantly reduced the cost of AGV technology.

Control systems are now available starting at about $250,000, and individual vehicles are priced between $50,000 and $65,000, nearly half the cost of first-generation systems that were introduced a decade ago.

Several new AGV products were introduced at the open house, including the laser-guided AGV2000, which is capable of unloading up to 15 tractor trailers per hour while scanning and recording bar codes.

FMC also introduced its new Layout Wizard software program, designed to put a facility's layout on CAD. With the program, users can perform the bulk of AGV layout on computer, providing greater flexibility, future expansion and reduced installation costs.

In layman's terms, the NAV30 wire-guided AGV follows a wire path in the floor, usually programmed in a straight or semi-straight narrow-aisle format. The laser-guided AGV2000 replaces the wire path with a "virtual" one, which is followed using lasers, targets and encoder feedback sensors, allowing the vehicle to move freely about a facility. By scanning strategically located sensor targets that provide feedback about the vehicle's location, the AGV is guided around obstacles such as walls, structural columns and machinery.

All movement is observed and controlled by the FMC host computer-control system within the plant, as well as at FMC's Chalfont headquarters, where a team of engineers can troubleshoot operations if and when necessary.

The host computer system also monitors input/output devices, which allow the AGV to open doors, stop at intersections and give right-of-way to oncoming AGVs that may cross its path.

With improvements that include easily changeable guidepaths, expandable off-the-shelf software (Windows NT platform), longer range and faster target sampling, improved target accuracy and improved laser reliability, AGV technology is opening the eyes of printers focusing on the future automation of their postpress operations.

Printers interested in the technology attended the function with that purpose in mind. Watching AGVs effortlessly loading, unloading and transporting reams of paper and pallets of other consumables, printing leaders were able to witness tomorrow's technology in use today.

And for those printers already employing that technology, like R.R. Donnelley—a multifacility AGV user—the robotics road to the future is presently being paved.

By Cheryl A. Adams
 

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