Mobility's Moment: How AGVs + AI = Everything

A Ground-Up Robotic Reinvention

Alongside the dishwasher and the washing machine, robotic warehouse systems were first introduced back in the 1960’s. But unlike the formerly mentioned appliances, robotic warehouses haven’t yet reached their household status, as even today over 90% of warehouses lack any automation technology. Fortunately, robotics are now undergoing massive reinvention, positioning the industry for its long-awaited growth. 

The days of bolten-down automation

The first age of warehouse automation drew its inspiration from large scale manufacturing facilities, where the dominant factors driving the engineering of such systems were distance and speed. Moving goods around in a warehouse at fast speeds required very accurate installations, which meant the robots were moving - horizontally or vertically - exclusively on rails. The side effects of such rail motion had always been high system costs, rigid designs as well as constant engineering presence that was required. Not many warehouses and fulfillment centers were automated, but the ones who did - worked well, while costing a fortune. 

Then along came Kiva Systems (founded in 2003 by post-dotcom e-commerce executives) and laid the “groundwork” for a completely new way of moving goods in a warehouse: with robots which drive on the open floor. This new breed of robots are called AGV - Automated Ground Vehicle, or AMR - Autonomous Mobile Robot. 

Early age of AGVs

AGVs and AMRs are referred to broadly as Mobility Robotics, and they broke into our professional lives only a little over a decade ago. Kiva was acquired by Amazon in 2012, kicking off the early age of AGVs. Through the 2010s, AGVs were mostly low-rising “robotic platforms” which could carry a whole shelf around a warehouse. 

Credit: Amazon Robotics

The advantages of AGVs over bolted-down automation were remarkable: 

  • Lower costs 
  • Faster, more flexible installation
  • No single point of failure 

But AGVs also suffered from 2 main challenges: 

  1. Low space utilization due to very limited height of the shelves, at around 2 meters
  2. Slow movement at around 1-2 meters per second, supporting low throughputs

So overall, early age AGVs were indeed low-cost, but also low density and low throughput - making them very limited overall.

Second age of AGVs 

In the past 3 years, a number of AGV vendors who reached scale with the early age of low density platforms were able to manufacture systems allowing for much higher storage density. Changing their previously exclusive reliance on moving shelves around, AGVs moving bins are now able to stack up storage up to 10 meters high, and densely store goods in 2-deep, 3-deep and even 4-deep bin storage racks. 

Credit: Hai Robotics

This was made possible by recent advancements in robotics hardware, allowing ground roaming platforms to support tall Y-axis mechanisms, like in this picture 

This new age AGVs offers:

  • Low costs
  • Tall, high density storage options
  • Easy deployment
  • No single point of failure

What they lack still are 3 critical components to overall fulfillment economics:

  1. Supporting mediocre throughput and pick rates 
  2. Basic software stack not allowing for optimal storage and operation 
  3. The software layers that connects their goods-to-person section to the end-to-end operation and other parts of the supply chain

The future of AI-powered EFCs 

Indeed, the first and second generations of AGVs enjoyed growth and reports suggest it can reach a 20% market share within the warehouse automation market by 2028. But their true tipping point will come from a slightly different angle: AI. 

The power of AI and sophisticated software models can neutralize AGV disadvantages while boosting their overall productivity rates. 

Such AI and software systems can change the landscape of fulfillment robotics for good: 

We at Finally are building AI-powered SFCs by boosting AGV performance, reimagining the fulfillment economy.