Insight into piece of new technology

Chris Smith about to present a special manufacturer's badge to Michael Duffy.
Chris Smith about to present a special manufacturer's badge to Michael Duffy.

Morpeth Rotary Club

CHRIS Smith, Director (Engineering) of the Automation Group Ltd, spoke to members about the automated, information technology driven I-Cart that he had invented.

It is designed, developed and made in the North East but sold across the UK, the European Union, South Africa and to other parts of the world. The first one for Singapore went out a few days ago.

In almost every business, there is a need for material handling, moving things from one place to another, and that costs money. In manufacturing and warehousing, most of this is done by humans either pushing trolleys or driving fork-lift trucks.

The same amount of money will be spent on the I-Cart system as on humans, but it is better and cheaper to run.

The cost of using a fork-lift truck is around £58,000 a year, including the cost of fuel and for the worker, and that comes to £25 an hour.

A trolley costs £100 but as you have to employ people to push it, the total average cost is about £46,000 each year.

The I-Cart moves itself and costs £1.43 an hour to run. It knows where to go and where to drop off and pick up.

Mr Smith’s company supplied Nissan with a frame to carry large car parts that were part of Automated Guided Vehicles (AGVs). Honda saw them at Nissan and asked if it could be supplied with the vehicle, although Automation Group had only supplied the frames.

It thought this was a good opportunity to make the whole vehicle and took six weeks to design one from new using Wi-Fi, two mechanical designers, a control designer and other staff.

The Honda people called in for an advance look but during the demonstration it wandered about like a drunk.

The company needed to work on the turning algorithm and invited Honda back in another six weeks and this time it worked.

The first prototype was then sent out, but by the time it was ready, the recession had started and Honda went into a six-month shut-down.

This made it clear that Automation Group could not just rely on the car industry. It had to develop equipment that would be of use to others.

It worked to the principle of ‘lean manufacture’ and getting rid of waste and the McDonalds fast-food approach where everything had to be no more than one step away from the operator. Parts had to be available where and when needed.

An AGV was developed with a program to allow it to work out what it needed to do itself and that interfaced with the outside world using the in-built Wi-Fi system.

The design was new and much smaller with an AGV that was no wider than a person’s shoulders so it could get in and out of the same spaces.

The design target was for it to be compact with less than five per cent of air (space) in the device. The finished version was 35cm high, one metre long, could pull half-a-ton and run on batteries.

There are a whole set of specialised trolleys to go with it that can be automatically swopped over, depending on the job.

It has an embedded credit-card-type radio frequency transmitter. There is a floor tile system it can use to guide itself by following a magnetic strip.

On the side, the radio frequency card tags it so it knows where to go.

There is also a laser guidance system – if someone stands in front of it, it stops. If it sees another I-Cart, it gives way or is given priority.

They are used in an asthma inhaler production factory that presses out parts where it takes parts to a washing machine.

Mr Smith went to King Edward VI School in Morpeth and as a thank-you to an inspiring teacher, he awarded a special badge to Morpeth Rotary member Michael Duffy, who taught him history there and was headteacher.