AGVs: A New Era Of Industrial Digitalization & Communication

Sensors Insights by Marco Reichenbächer

The age of industrial digitalization is finally upon us. Many manufacturers are embracing this new era in communication by integrating their factories with new automation equipment and leveraging wireless technologies to increase productivity. The digitization of these systems brings a new level of holistic control to industrial communication across all industries. This is especially true for teams in the food and beverage, pharmaceutical, intralogistics and automotive manufacturing spaces.

AGV automotive body shop.
Typical AGV.

For an additional level of improved operational performance and connectivity, manufacturers across these sectors are also seeking to equip their facilities with automated guided vehicles (AVGs). AGVs are mobile vehicles, commonly referred to as robots, which rely on wires and cabling or sensors and wireless technologies for navigation within industrial settings. The vehicles are most frequently used to move materials throughout a manufacturing facility – with the automation component recently coming into play.

 

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Meeting customer needs with wireless: A case study in AGVs

The latest trend in AGVs is the shift to autonomous vehicles that tap into wireless technology. For one specific European-based AGV manufacturer, they sought to integrate best-in-market wireless solutions into its AGVs. Doing so would provide their customers with long-term cost savings, reduced errors and improved process optimization – all critical factors for business success today.

To upgrade its wireless AGV communication, the manufacturer sought a solution that could ensure reliable and sound wireless speed. Their specific system requirements included:

•           Reliable and stable wireless roaming capabilities with low handover times (in the milliseconds) to keep the AGVs moving on the planned schedule and avoid delays.

•           The use of limited frequency bandwidth. For example, a client device with 2.4 and 5 GHz bands can limit interference problems by using multiple frequencies to support simultaneous customer requests through the same client.

•           A variety of sophisticated security options to protect the wireless communication from internal and external threats. This could be achieved by using Wi-Fi security algorithms, like Wi-Fi Protected Access (WPA2), Wireless Intrusion Detection System (WIDS) or Rogue Client Detection.

•           High-speed wireless connections that are stable enough to overcome common interferences, such as industrial metal surfaces causing reflection of radio waves.

•           Stress-resistant components that can hold up in the common environmental conditions hat commonly affect AGVs, such as constant vibration, condensation, or temperature extremes.

•           Future proofed with latest IEEE 802.11n/ac wireless standard and multiple input, multiple output (MIMO) antenna technology.

AGV automotive body shop
AGV automotive body shop.

 

AGV communication goes beyond traditional expectations

This particular AGV manufacturer needed a robust and cost-effective wireless solution that would meet the needs of their mobile vehicles. The manufacturer gravitated toward two types of solutions to ensure reliable communication coverage: an industrial wireless access point/client and an omnidirectional antenna. The wireless access point solved a critical concern of providing secure Wi-Fi communication, while maintaining a short roaming handover time. The access points used the latest WPA2 enterprise (IEEE 802.11i/IEEE 802.1x) in combination with Opportunistic Key Caching (OKC) to guarantee the highest of level of wireless security and improve roaming handover time.

When OKC was used in coordination with a central wireless local area network (WLAN), the manufacturer could deliver fast authentication between multiple access points throughout a network. Once set up with a WLAN, OKC helped establish an uninterrupted supply of communication, or fast roaming. This capability – which is now minimized to just milliseconds – is measured by the handover time between access points.

The following benefits of using a wireless access point and client were critical to the manufacturer’s choice in delivering optimized operation and error reduction throughout their networks:

•           High data transfer speeds, ideally up to 867 Mbit/s and meets IEEE 802.11n/ac standard for network speed

•           Low signal interference, meeting the challenging requirements of industrial markets, including vibrations and electromagnetic compatibility (EMC)

•           High system reliability with expanded management, redundancy and security functions with specialized operating systems

•           Boosted warehouse efficiency through better WLAN roaming for moving vehicles

•           Better machine uptime and easier AGV fleet scalability due to fast wireless set up, centralized setting changes and updates

•           Lower complexity and installation time with less frequency of AGV planning via 2.4 and 5 GHz bands, providing more non-overlapping channels

No matter the industry, manufacturing environments bring unique challenges for automation teams beyond the traditional concerns of increased uptime, productivity and operational efficiency. In this specific case, the manufacturer selected omnidirectional antennas to work with the wireless access point and client to provide the AGVs with a full range of connectivity within their harsh operating environments.

The antenna in this situation complied with the Ingress Protection (IP) 65 degree of protection for high industrial suitability and improved transmit-and-receive power through the homogenous emission behavior of the antennas during operation. The N sockets allowed the team to connect the antennas easily and quickly with other cables and overvoltage protectors. In this case, the antenna enabled the network to operate reliably due to its vibration-resistant, weatherproof and sturdy design.

Antenna offers IP65-level protection.
Antenna offers IP65-level protection.

Once installed, the manufacturer’s customers are now able to replicate the IP configuration from one AGV to the rest of their fleets by using the NAT feature on the wireless client. Through reduced installation costs and complexity, their customers are equipped with the means to expand their fleets with improve Wi-Fi density for disruption-free signals.

 

What’s next for AGVs?

Poised with the challenge of upgrading its wireless communication to out-do its competitors, the manufacturer presented its customers with the latest in wireless technology for AGVs. Addressing these challenges ultimately sped up software updates and optimized the operational time of AGVs.

By applying wireless communication applications directly to mobile vehicles, companies can reduce the amount of magnetic tape guidance systems in the ground throughout the factory floor. This increases route flexibility and reduces installation costs and the need for regular maintenance. Companies could instead replace physical components with a reliable, efficient and up-to-date means to control AGV communication.

The expansion of industrial digitalization is not an industry update – it’s a wholesale shift. The trend towards highly flexible production areas – or without fixed and predefined production sequences – throughout the smart factory is coming. As the supply and installation of self-autonomic production lines expands, end users will look to industry innovators for the next generation of network components for reliable and disruption-free wireless communication.

 

About the author

Marco Reichenbächer has been in the automation industry since 2003, and has worked for Belden since 2007. He graduated with a business administration degree from the University of Münster. Based in Stuttgart, Germany, Marco managed several industries as a vertical marketing manager and defined the strategic operations planning of Hirschmann and Lumberg Automation to implement growth initiatives for key product lines and markets. Today, he works for Belden’s vertical marketing department leading automotive manufacturing to develop application-oriented solutions.