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Soft Design AB is a leading Automated Guided Vehicle (AGV) supplier based in Gothenburg Sweden, with over 20 years of experience in the AGV business. Sweden for many years has been called the birthplace of modern AGV technology, with Volvo leading the way in the mid 1970s. AGVs are also known as Laser Guided Vehicles (LGV) or Self Guided Vehicles (SGV). Soft Design supply AGV Systems throughout Europe to major system integrators or direct to customers, delivering high quality AGV manufacturing and software that is associated with Swedish suppliers, Tony Hughes Soft Designs European Sales Manager takes the time to answer some of the more frequently asked questions about AGVs :
Q: What do people say when they see AGVs at work for the first time?
Watching AGVs at work is an amazing sight - anyone seeing them in action for the first time cannot fail to be mesmerised as these unmanned vehicles move around carrying pallets or products from A to B. AGVs are of course impressive and this perception is often seen as futuristic technology that can lift the image of companies, but its important not to lose sight of the fact that apart from being technological marvels, they do serve an important purpose. They work without breaks or holidays 24 hours a day 7 days a week 365 days a year, and while many companies have not considered implementing AGVs thinking they may be too expensive for them, this is quite often not the case. Once a customer installs an AGV system it is highly likely they will last for 20 years or more, we have recently replaced systems that have lasted for 20-25 years, so these systems have seen a great return on investment.
Q: Why should companies invest in an AGV System?
There are many reasons. Most have specific aims such as cost saving goals or a general improvement in terms of automation, but the main factors normally fall into the following categories: increased utilisation and productivity: AGVs can operate 24/7 without taking a break, they reduce time wasted waiting for late deliveries, less product damage: AGVs are controlled with incredible accuracy +/- 3mm so materials are always delivered to the right place on time and in good condition. AGVs free up manpower from the traditional transport systems and finally return on Investment: typically 2-3 years depending on the shift patterns.
Q: How long have Soft Design worked with AGVs?
Soft Design have worked with AGV Systems as our core business for over 20 years, using our own unrivalled AGV Electronics (SONIX) and AGV Control System (MAX). About 5 years ago we made a huge investment into developing our products based on Microsoft platforms and standard AGV electro / mechanical components, this was a big change in direction for us, even if the goal and philosophy behind it was rather simple, we wanted to be able to change with the times much faster but at the same time be able to support our existing customer base. We now follow the Microsoft platform migration which means when a customer wants to updates his office or factory to a modern platform our MAX system is ready for them and its just a simple case of upgrading MAX to the next generation. With our AGV electronics all versions are backward compatible, so when we develop a new SONIX platform it is a direct replacement for the older electronics. Our AGV Hardware and the ease of integration to other software systems is also a strong point of Soft Design, our roots as a software company give us a major advantage; we are able to offer complete turnkey AGV installations from the design, simulation and concept phases through to project installation, commissioning and customer support after hand over.
Q: Do you have standard AGV designs and products?
Soft Design and our electro-mechanical sister company Atab have together launched a new range of laser guided AGVs that use AC motors and Sonix Electronics. The new range of AGVs includes the FX AGV (Forklift type) pallet handler, the CX AGV (Conveyor-loading) for warehouses, production facilities and the RX AGV (Reel handler) for the newspaper printing plants. We currently have 25 new Max generation systems running hundreds of AGVs, but historically our AGV designers have been involved in designing over 11,000 AGVs these engineers have over 350 man years of experience between them.
Q: What industries or sectors do you cover?
Soft Design is successfully working in all kinds of industries. For example, in the Automotive industry we have entire car assembly systems using AGVs and engine assembly, Newsprint has also been an extremely successful sector for Soft Design in recent years - many of the UKs leading daily newspapers use our AGVs to deliver two ton reels of paper to the printing presses. In the Food and Beverage sector, our AGVs transfer pallets from production to the warehouse, while another demanding, high specification area, is pharmaceuticals, where load tracking and traceability are needed at all times. Warehouse and distribution centres, as well as production and manufacturing sectors are a traditional area for our AGV systems. These are just a few of the sectors our AGV systems are running in.
Q: What controls the AGVs?
Our AGV Control system MAX is a state-of-the-art, dependable Control System that runs on a modern client server Windows environment. It utilises Microsofts products and is easy to configure and provides great possibilities for future expansion. It offers a user-friendly interface with well-presented screens and with logical functionality that is easy to learn - anyone with a general interest in PCs or as a PC user can learn MAX. The visualisation comes with 2D and 3D alternatives, where operators can choose what is best for them. MAX controls the AGV routing making last minute decisions along the AGVs guidance path in order to select optimum routes to specific destinations. MAX also has a Warehouse module for keeping stock of inventory or buffer stock placed throughout the factory, MAX knows where these products are at all times, where and when loads come into the system or when they need to be dispatched or moved to other locations throughout the system.
Q: How do AGVs know where to go?
This question is more for the technicians or engineers, but when it comes to the laser guidance system Soft Design uses a laser scanner from SICK that gives out the required X and Y coordinates, the laser is of the same power used in a standard CD player and very safe. The laser scanner is mounted at a high position on the AGV, reflectors (targets) are strategically mounted on available land marks like racking and walls out of harms way so they are not easily damaged. The targets are made of high visibility reflective tape on a plastic cylinder, and a minimum of three targets must be detected at any time during travel. The targets can be located up to 30 meters from the AGV. The laser scanner measures the distance and angle to each target and gives out X and Y coordinates on a serial port direct to the SONIX AGV control unit. AGV Systems containing more than one AGV require traffic control so the AGVs do not run into each other, its a bit like having invisible traffic lights; MAX has no limits to the number of crossings or traffic controlled intersections.
Q: How do AGVs pick up loads?
Load transfer is the pickup and delivery method for an AGV, which may be simple or integrated with other subsystems. For example, the AGV can be fitted with a roller bed or a chain conveyor; this transfers the load from one conveyor to another anywhere within the factory. Traditional forks transfer pallets from floor to racking or racking to floor, the reel handler with movable v-shaped forks can handle large and small reels of paper. AGVs for engine assembly or car assembly the load is carried on top or on fixtures, the load transfer possibilities really are endless.
Q: Are there any limitation as to how large or small a system can be?
Soft Design offers solutions to meet our customers automation transportation requirements, from the single AGV to the large integrated system solutions - there are no limits large or small to the amount of AGVs that MAX can handle. The same goes for load handling these are typically from 500kgs to 5 ton. A MAX AGV systems flexibility allows it to integrate easily with any industrial process or production and to communicate with all management systems (Ex: SAP, WMS, WCS, EDI, ERP, pre-delivery papinet).
Q: What about training, do your customers have to be expert engineers?
Training is provided as standard for those members of the customers staff who will interact with the AGV System after installation and hand-over. Training will take place on-site or in Sweden. The AGV Control System and Maintenance training programmes will be geared to their level of expertise. The numbers attending a training course is normally limited to a maximum of six people to allow individual hands-on participation; of course, we will run more training courses to suit the numbers of staff for any particular system or multi-shift operation. We include a training programme for the key personnel who then can train subordinate staff on the AGV Systems operation and functionality. Depending whether a system has one AGV or hundreds, the training on the AGV system falls into the following categories: general system appreciation, functionality of the system and equipment, Supervisor training, Systems training for IT technicians and the maintenance and servicing of the AGVs.
Q: What about support for your customers after they buy an AGV System?
Providing customer care is so important we therefore focus more and more on a partnership with our customers. This pro-active approach keeps our customers in touch with product changes and new developments, it also keeps Soft Design informed and updated with our customers requirements or changes to their needs for the AGV System. Through many years of experience, Soft Design and our local service partners are able to design a service agreement that suits their needs. This ensures the most cost-effective maintenance plan and maximum up-time for our customers systems, leaving them to concentrate on their core business. Our service engineers are experts in the field of AGV maintenance and repair, with in-depth product knowledge for fast fault finding and efficient repair. Regarding Spare Parts, Soft Design holds a comprehensive stock of major components and during the warranty period all major components will be held on-site for 2 years. We are also able to guarantee spare parts delivery of stock held items from Sweden within 24 hours anywhere in Europe. Software Support, all AGV application software and configuration is designed in-house. This means that software support is both fast and efficient, giving Soft Design an outstanding advantage when offering a 24/7 telephone or VPN support service.