Across the protein processing industry, the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic has put pressure on traditional labor sources, with illness-related worker absences and localized outbreaks being felt keenly in poultry and meat processing plants. Given this pressure it is perhaps unsurprising that there has been an increase in interest in JBT’s innovative AGV (Automatic Guided Vehicle) range; a solution that enables companies to save labor for higher value tasks and safeguard social distancing.
More than simple robotic systems, JBT AGVs feature an advanced navigation system which creates a virtual map of the surroundings in which it operates, allowing it to safety move around the working area. Further, JBT AGVs now come with 2D and 3D cameras for safe positioning and vertical stacking of pallets above the level of the AGV.
According to Mark Longacre, Application Engineering Manager for JBT’s AGV division, JBT has received more inquiries, more frequently since the start of the pandemic, with companies having become more aware of the labor- and ROI-related advantages offered by the AGVs. “I think the whole ROI picture is changing,” he says. “Companies in the past were looking at it purely as a financial equation, but now I think they are starting to understand some of the risks with the labor force. You want to save labor for the highest value added task and driving forklifts is not something where you have to use labor.”
Growing awareness of challenges in the labor market have led to increasing interest in JBT AGVs from meat and poultry processors, with many companies looking to introduce more automation. “On the poultry side, there is interest in using the AGVs at the in-feed of the processing plant and at the end of line, where things have been processed and we are carrying pallets out,” says Longacre.
There has also been an expansion in the use of AGVs from manufacturing areas – where the vehicles would be used to move raw materials or finished goods – to warehousing and distribution. “In the past, AGVs were more of a horizontal transport solution and now they are getting much more vertical where we are storing in warehouses, in some cases quite high,” continues Longacre. “It’s not to say that those manufacturing applications have gone away. They really haven’t, but now we are also seeing this growth in the warehousing side.”
As demand for different applications has grown, so has the advancement on what Longacre describes as natural environment navigation, where the AGVs create a baseline map by sensing the features and contours of the surrounding environment. “As the AGVs operate, they compare what they see with their sensors to that baseline map, and accurately navigate in that environment,” explains Longacre. “By recognizing the natural environment and not adding special navigation aids or markers, it makes installation quicker and less costly.”