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Automated guided vehicles: Exclusive interview with Kivnon commercial director

Automated guided vehicles could completely change the industrial technology ecosystem, ushering in the era of cyber-physical operations and reducing the reliance on traditional fixed infrastructure, like monorails and conveyors

Kivnon is probably the world’s leading manufacturer of automated guided vehicles. 

Its AGVs are particularly popular in the automotive sector, utilised by a large number of leading automakers – including Volkswagen, Renault, Nissan, Daimler, Seat and others.

Kivnon AGVs are also to be found in industrial companies from other sectors, being used to transport material from one place to another in their facilities. 

But the company is currently developing automation solutions that go beyond material handling, and get right into the heart of the assembly process.

Since launch 10 years ago, the Spanish company has sold way more than 1,000 units from its standard range of five AGVs, and many of the solutions it supplies are custom-built for specific clients.

The things the company learned on the relatively small pilot projects it started with are now the basis of much larger deals. Whereas before, it may have received an order for one or two AGVs, now it can be asked to produce batches of a couple of hundred.

In this exclusive interview, Rob Keij, commercial director at Kivnon, takes Robotics and Automation News on a journey through the company’s AGV business.

Beyond job descriptions

Rob Keij, Kivnon
Rob Keij, Kivnon

You might not imagine systems engineering or systems design to be part of a commercial director’s job, but with relatively new technology like AGVs, providing solutions often involves many different departments and people.

Keij says: “The way we operate – and I can only speak for myself but I suppose there are more people like me within the other AGV suppliers – but we are operating at this moment in a way that we want to be the consultants for the client companies.

“We want to help the companies, to give them solutions that work. And this, in our case, is very much appreciated because, you’re right, many customers sometimes don’t know yet what kind of solutions to apply because there are so many.

“There are so many things you can do with an AGV that people can get lost. So it’s very good to go to a factory, to look around, to help a customer identify opportunities where savings can be made with an AGV.”

AGV technology has been in existence for around 20 years, but with advances in computing and decreases in the prices of critical components such as sensors and microprocessors, the technology is now ready for a much wider market.

It also helps that it’s become fashionable to talk about things like Industry 4.0 and cyber-physical systems, which essentially refer to the increasing levels of machine-to-machine connectivity in industrial operations, which, in turn, are connected to computer systems, and how humans are working in harmony with intelligent machines.

It’s often called the convergence of OT and IT, meaning the bringing together of operations technologies – such as machines – with information technology, most importantly, the software, which often lives in powerful computers on-site or in the cloud.

These newly available and relatively affordable technologies have provided companies like Kivnon with opportunities to develop new types of products that they may not have been able to before.

For example, Kivnon claims to be the first company in the world to launch an AGV with artificial intelligence-powered vision and voice.

kivnon family
Kivnon’s range of AGVs

AI see what you did there

Kivnon was established by two business partners who had already been running an industrial automation integration company for 30 years.

They were asked to develop an AGV by Johnson Controls back when the US building automation giant was producing equipment for original equipment manufacturers.

AGVs were not the type of solutions the Spanish company offered back then, but they agreed to develop something for Johnson Controls and the result was good enough to provide a foundation for a successful new business – Kivnon.

Kivnon now employs about 100 people, and has its own research and development department which produced its complete range of five AGVs between the years 2009 and 2012.

“By now, we have a lot of experience with AGVs in the market,” says Keij. “I think if you look at Spain, we have really developed advanced solutions for factories here if you compare AGVs and factories in different parts of the world.

“I travel a lot and I see that Germany is catching up.

“But we have factories here, like the one you saw on video about AGVs at Seat, which are really impressive. Seat are quite advanced with technology.

“I think Spain is ahead still, but I think Germany and others are catching up.”

It’s not surprising that automakers are good customers for AGV companies. The close working relationship between AGV builders and carmakers could benefit both sides as more and more vehicles of various sizes integrate new sensing technologies and AI.

However, Kivnon’s most advanced vehicle – the AGV that uses voice and vision – was not actually the result of a collaboration. It was something the company thought would help prepare it for the future.

“It’s not exactly the development that the market has been asking for,” says Keij. “But what we think is that it’s good to have an experience with AI technology to show that Kivnon is one step ahead … in a market in which that might be there in the future.”

And logically speaking, it seems AI AGVs would seem to be a cost-effective alternative to expensive conveyors and monorail systems. In fact, AI AGVs could change whole swathes of industry, and Keij is particularly enthusiastic about the technology.

The latest Kivnon AGVs have AI voice and vision systems

Cyber-physical systems in action 

Imagine a factory or warehouse where there are AGVs that respond to gestures and voice commands. Meaning, a human worker can wave their hand or speak to the AGV to bring it or send it to a particular place within the facility.

Providing the technology works well, talking to an AGV would be very similar to talking to a human co-worker.

“The fact that you can talk to the AGV means that there will be a more human connection,” says Keij, “and I think there will be more innovation when you have this sort of interaction between humans and the machines in your factory; and things will be quicker.”

This scenario would seem to be a good example of a cyber-physical system, one where a human works collaboratively with an intelligent machine.

But Kivnon’s R&D department has gone much further than that by placing robotic arms on top of the AGVs and by programming them to perform assembly tasks on a moving line.

Keij provides an example of an application the company tested using its AGV with a robotic arm from ABB.

“This is really new – I’ve never seen this type of movement,” says Keij.

He describes an automotive assembly line where a car body is placed on top of an AGV, and a robot moving in synchronised motion alongside it, and fitting a car door in place – all while in motion.

Complex enough to make you think carefully about what just happened. Basically, it would mean replacing rails and conveyors with AGVs and a constantly moving assembly line.

A similar sort of system – let’s call it a “synchronised motion assembly line” – could be used in any equivalent manufacturing environment, whether it’s for placing a door or seat into a car body, or some part of a washing machine, or any other complex, engineered product.

“This is where I think we are going,” says Keij. “More and more, I’m talking to robotics guys who are thinking about robot applications in combination with AGVs.

“All this development of AGVs, in general, I think is growing very fast because we are now in the development stage of Industry 4.0.

“Everybody knows about this, the cyber-physical systems, everybody wants the fourth industrial revolution that we are now in, where we want to connect everything to everything, and we would prefer to connect everything wirelessly.

“So I think with our type of product, we are in the heart of this because we are in the heart of logistics, assembly and robotics.

“We have solutions which are wireless and can work autonomously.”

A Kivnon AGV at work in a factory
A Kivnon AGV at work in a factory

A flexible future 

It’s not always possible to persuade companies to provide numbers about anything, whether it’s unit sales or revenues or anything like that, often because the companies Robotics and Automation News talks to are privately held, as Kivnon is.

Being a news website, we would, of course, argue that publicising interesting data would benefit the whole industry, which is why we produced a list of the top industrial robot manufacturers, one of the most popular articles on this website.

We will try and produce a similar list of the top AGV manufacturers and Keij gives us a great start by guestimating how many units Kivnon has sold so far.

“It must be more than a thousand,” says Keij. “I need to calculate it correctly when I have the details, but definitely more than a thousand AGVs.”

And he divides the AGV market into three distinct segments, although two of them could be said to be very new, or experimental:

  1. in logistics, moving material around;
  2. in assembly, moving products while robots on rails work on them; and
  3. in logistics or assembly, with robots integrated with AGVs.

“We have the traditional way of using an AGV that everyone knows, which is moving material from A to B,” says Keij. “This is the logistics application for an AGV.

“But what I see more and more – because I talk to a lot of customers every day, every week – is that AGVs are being used in assembly applications.”

The other two applications depend on the ingenuity of those who build the solutions, but everything seems to be leading to increasing productivity by making facilities operate faster and with AGVs instead of fixed rails and other structures.

“You can use the AGV instead of traditional technology, like conveyors and monorails, and this is saving a tremendous amount of money in maintenance of fixed structures in factories.

“And it’s creating flexibility, which is the most important point for the customers because, with assembly lines, they need the flexibility to be able to adapt to new products, which they have to do very often.

“The manufacturers have the flexibility to filter out one individual product from an assembly line if there is a quality issue with that item, and you can continue with the rest.

“With a monorail, you have to stop the whole monorail so everything stops in the factory and you lose expensive production minutes.”

From narrow requirements to wider markets

One of the many research and development projects Kivnon has been working on involves placing an ABB robot – the two-armed YuMi collaborative robot – on top of an AGV (main picture).

In fact, the company is working on a number of different projects which have “a million types of modifications” that are possible, according to Keij.

Depending on how a robot is programmed and the types of end effectors are integrated into it, a combined AGV-robot can be put to work in material handling or assembly, and the many different tasks within those segments.

For Kivnon, making decisions about exactly what solution is required is usually a process that involves Keij, the company’s R&D department, as well as the customers.

For example, AGVs are often integrated into a facility by placing magnetic tags on the floor to create a given route for the AGV. But with AI AGVs which can go anywhere in any direction, using Kivnon’s new mapping technology, the choices are many.

It’s great to have lots of choices, but deciding on what to implement can be a difficult part of the planning stage of developing a solution.

What might help in the decision-making process is that AGVs are said to cost far less than fixed systems.

Keij says one of Kivnon’s customers calculated that they saved 80 per cent on the overall operational costs by using AGVs instead of fixed structures and lift trucks. The calculations take into account the power consumption and maintenance costs of the two very different solutions.

While systems design is usually the art and practice of delivering exactly what a specific customer requires, very often, a company like Kivnon is able to apply what it has learned from developing one particular solution towards developing new products for the wider market.

Keij says: “We are always listening to our customers to see what’s going on, what is the idea they have, because they are also very talented people and know their market, where they want to go, and what is the future.

“And, of course, we try to adapt to this with our research and development department because we have our own research and development in which we make developments in-house.

“We always do this based on the market, not only specific requests, but we try to listen to the market and we try to develop the things that we think we will be using in the future.”