Last week we talked about the coming over-the-road autonomous trucks. Inside your facility, autonomy is already here for most routine production tasks.
The first time I saw autonomous vehicles transporting serious loads of raw materials and products was at Procter & Gamble's converting plant in Cape Girardeau, Missouri in 1977. That's forty-two years ago. The plant had a wire guide system buried in the floor, which carts followed. They had safety detection sensors and would simply stop if an unexpected obstruction was in the way. Otherwise they followed the wire, making stops where they had been programmed to make stops.
Our biggest problem with this system? The large slabs that made up the floor floated and the wire would break at the joints. All sorts of improvements were tried to correct this, I don't know what the final result was, as it was not solved by the time I left.
I have seen totally dark finished roll warehouses in recent years. No humans allowed inside. Rolls are moved via overhead cranes (there are two of them) with grippers that grab the vertical rolls. The rolls are presented in a vertical position and the bar code is read by sensors on the crane. The cranes place the rolls and the computer remembers where they are. The only activity involving human-driven clamp trucks is picking up the roll as presented on a conveyor outside the warehouse, turning around, and loading it onto the over-the-road-truck.
In another facility, the rolls are placed on a belt, the bar code read, and then the rolls are either moved toward the warehouse side (where they are picked up by a regular clamp truck) or sent the opposite direction where they travel about fifty feet to a box plant (talk about low transportation costs!). I suspect those clamp trucks will be eliminated soon.
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Where clamp or fork trucks driven by humans have not been replaced, sophisticated detection systems that work from detectors placed on the walls and on other fork trucks working in the same area have reduced accidents, and equipment and building damage. Using radar, computers and internal spatial maps, these trucks are protected from collision--increasing speed and safety at the same time.
In other cases, particularly box plants and other converting and printing operations, 2-D large dimensional platforms carry inventory to where it is needed and off-load it as needed.
In mills, reel spool magazines and automatic loaders have largely eliminated these semi-manual job. If we want to think a bit further on the machine improvements over the years, even rope systems or the more modern ropeless threading systems are an improvement over the old days. (I am so old I have seen paper machines that did not have ropes, that were threaded by skilled papermakers by hand--scariest thing you ever want to see).
Conveyors, cranes and monorails have been used for a long time in factory settings. These more modern cousins I have described above have now been around for decades.
Today, the decision to use autonomous transportation inside facilities is more often an economic one rather than a technical one. In some cases, it still makes sense to use human-driven devices to carry product and other materials that must be moved from one place to another in 2-D or 3-D.
For sure, when we can keep humans away from moving equipment, safety improves. Don't forget this important component as you justify your next internal transportation project.
Be safe and we will talk next week.
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