Factories seek robotic aid amid labor shortage, outbreak
Tirelessly working automated guided vehicle (AGV) systems have proved their value in factories and warehouses for conveying heavy loads on behalf of humans. Now they are attracting additional attention and demand because using them reduces person-to-person contact amid the ongoing coronavirus outbreak.
Toyota Industries Corp. launched a new AGV system in its Key Cart lineup on Sept. 24 that boasts a maximum load capacity of 1,000 kilograms. Nearly doubling the payload of its predecessor, the new Key Cart runs on magnetic tape guidance and can make 100 complex movements, including straight lines, curves and turns, according to the firm.
Priced at about ¥1.5 million, “A firm can recover their [Key Cart] investment in one year,” said Daisuke Kobayashi, head of the company’s logistics system section. He hopes the system will become more widely used at small and midsize companies that handle heavy materials.
Toyota Industries, whose main products include forklifts, entered the logistics automation business in 1986. Key Carts are between 1 meter and 1.6 meters long and first hit the market in 2014. The company has sold a total of 3,000 units to food and mail-order businesses at home and overseas. Buyers have praised Toyota for being able to double their transport efficiency or shave hours of manual labor each day.
“They appreciate the ease of use and the accessible price,” Kobayashi said.
If automated forklift trucks and container transport vehicles are included, the firm’s share of the domestic AGV market is about 40%, according to the company. The company has been strengthening its business, including the acquisition of logistics systems companies in the Netherlands and the U.S. in 2017.
Shintec Hozumi Co., a machinery manufacturer in Miyoshi, Aichi Prefecture, also launched four new AGV systems in July priced between ¥1.5 million to ¥2.5 million. It has been in the AGV business for about 20 years.
“We put in the necessary technology to keep prices down. We also have been providing extensive support to improve logistics,” said an official of the company.
In July, Sharp Corp. launched its Type LC AGV system, which can be implemented with just a single unit. Sharp entered the AGV business in 2017, but its main focus so far has been on deliveries to large factories and companies that use multiple AGV units.
“It now has become a trend in society to leave the transportation work to machines so that [firms] can use personnel for high-value-added work,” a Sharp official said.
Some start-ups are looking to tap into the market on the strength of their proprietary technology.
Trust Smith and Co., a venture firm that originated at the University of Tokyo, has developed a computer algorithm that can detect unevenness and obstacles in the surrounding area and automatically make a detour. The company aims to commercialize the product within six months to a year.
“Although there is a lot of competition, we’d like to make the technology related to sensors and algorithms our strength,” an official of the firm said.
According to the Japan Industrial Vehicles Association, annual sales of AGV systems have more than tripled in 10 years, from 960 units in 2009 to 3,436 units in 2019
The actual AGV market size is believed to be larger than the size currently being presumed, with some new products not included in the statistics.
Although the novel coronavirus has led to a reduction in capital investments by companies, an official of the association said: “More and more companies are looking to adopt AGVs to reduce human contact. [The number of firms adopting the system] is expected to continue to grow.”