Is the year of the autonomous mobile robot (AMR) here? If going to trade shows and counting AMRs is any indicator, then yes. However, if the installed base is the measuring stick, then no. However, it is possible, even likely, that these rugged little devices will make good and fast inroads into manufacturing.

First, here is look at what they are and what they do. They are generally close to the ground, they do not carry things high, the way people do. They carry it as low as possible, to keep the center of gravity low and to conserve the vertical motion energy needed to do the job. They move along the floor not based on an embedded wire or strip, but by programming it to visit the places it needs to visit. Additionally, there is an element of autonomy (it’s in the name!) because if a person or movable obstruction gets in the way of the AMR, it calculates a way around the obstruction and safely proceeds around it.

The AMR has a simple job: transport stuff from here to there. Where it gets interesting is the purpose of all that transport. If an AMR is used to bring items to a loading dock or finishing department, then you have a home base (the dock or department) and lines going away from that to other places in the plan (shipping and receiving, for example, or the grinding area).

That is the first way to consider the AMRs: a hub and spoke system, much like that of a major airline. A second way is to use a model like that of a regional airline or a “hubless” (almost, anyway) airline like Southwest. In this scenario, the AMR knows where to go and in fact has many stops programmed in if it is in the business of moving parts from one place to the other without a “most favored” stop like the dock.

The third way to incorporate AMRs is to use them on a “trunk line.” In a busy fabricating shop, it might consist of only two stops—a bit like running between the wickets in a game of cricket. It could also be a hybrid where there are three or four related stops.

A new entry in this application is AMADA America’s AMTES, an AMR that serves as go-between for blanking and bending operations. It fits neatly into an environment that already features automation in material feeding and part removal, and blank bending. The amazing part is to create access areas for the AMR to drop off materials to the laser, grab the blanks that have been cut and transport them to an automated bending cell. There is a “home base” at each machine, and the AMR does its job in silence and with carrying power that would wear out a human counterpart in no time.

As more AMRs are adopted, there may be more transport ideas, but for now those three setups speak for most installations.