How Can Sensors Improve Material Handling Automation Safety?

If you use automatic machinery for material handling, you also need to know how to minimize risks at your facility.

Don't allow your steps into the future to create an unsafe facility. Sensors with your automated equipment can make using it much safer for your workers and those around them. But if you use automatic machinery for material handling, you also need to know how to minimize risks at your facility.

The Problem With Automated Guided Vehicles

Automating material handling frees the need for forklift drivers by using automated guided vehicles (AGVs) or automated guided carts (AGCs). These devices mean fewer human operators   are needed to tend them. But, without a driver, these vehicles may run into people or objects.

If you think older sensors are all you need to protect your employees, think again. These sensors still do not prevent accidents from occurring. According to the CDC , nearly 100 workers are killed annually in forklift related incidents while another 20,000 are seriously injured. Having well-trained operators and updated sensors may help increase the safety of AGVs and AGCs.

Types of Sensors

Unlike older sensors that guide a vehicle regardless of obstacles, newer sensors increase the area an AGV can "see," making it safer. Depending on the sensors, you could even minimize human input in the AGV's operation. With predictions estimating 25 percent of future manufacturing functions reaching full automation, it's in your facility's best interests to adopt AGVs and appropriate sensors for automation.

Magnetic tape works best with AGCs and other light vehicles. Though you must mark out the path on the ground with tape, the AGC reliably follows the tape using magnets. It's easy to lay and change as needed. But it does not allow for immediate route changes.

Laser-guided AGVs integrate reflectors in the warehouse with lasers on the vehicle to triangulate the location of the AGV. Unlike magnetic tape, which requires a physical change to the route, you only need to change the programming of the guidance software to alter the path of the AGV.

Additionally, vision sensors form a 3-D image of the warehouse. These place the forklift into the warehouse space, which allows the AGV to move around obstacles without tape or marked lanes. You can use this system for automatic forklifts or have a driver for manual operation where needed.

LIDAR (light detection and ranging) technology guides the most versatile of AGVs and AGCs that use natural sensors. You don't need to install reflectors around the warehouse. These vehicles can even "see" around corners, eliminating blind spots that would be present for a human driver.

In addition to choosing which type of sensors to use, how those sensors drive the vehicles also matter. Automated vehicles, which comprise 10 percent of the equipment for automated materials   handling worldwide, stop when an obstacle crosses their paths. These require more human intervention to clear the blockage. Autonomous vehicles steer themselves around the obstacle, making them safer and needing less oversight. Though today, automated — not autonomous — vehicles are available, future AGVs will be entirely self-driving.

People Remain Important

Though sensors can improve material handling safety, the humans at the facility remain a critical component of protecting workers. In one example, a laser-guided forklift killed a worker at a Kraft Foods facility. Though tragic, the plant could have prevented this accident if the facility followed the ANSI/ITSDF guidelines that stipulated the braking system "cannot be expected to function as designed." Unexpected events such as objects or people suddenly crossing the AGV's path could cause a malfunction in braking. In an ideal world, systems would function as designed, but for now, it’s best to take precautions and read the fine print .

To prevent such an accident, anyone in the facility needs training for operations around the AGVs, whether they operate properly or not. Updating training will also ensure existing and new employees always know what to do in the event of an AGV emergency. Training can make sensor-operated AGVs even safer than they currently are.

Keep Up With Maintenance

In addition to upgrading to LIDAR-guided or another advanced sensors, you also can enhance the safety of your AGVs through maintenance. With a poor maintenance plan, you could sacrifice 5 to 20 percent of the productivity of your facility.

Not maintaining your AGVs could lead to the sensors or the brakes failing during operation, which could result in a serious accident that could cause loss of product or life. Maintenance can also include updating software for laser-guided and similar AGVs. Like any software program, these require regular updates for optimal operation.

Sensors Are Just the Start

AGVs and AGCs can help automate your facility, increasing your efficiency. Doing so can boost productivity, while freeing employees from having to drive forklifts. Sensors do make these vehicles safer, but they’re only one part of the picture. You'll still need to train employees and maintain your fleet. If you don't, you risk problems, which can still occur with AGVs that use the most up-to-date sensors.

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