The history of the Automated Guided Vehicle

Heusenstamm, 18 December 2019 – During the upturn in industry in the 1950s, manual activities, manned forklifts and conveyor technology at floor level dominated the scene in the production halls. Heavier parts, in particular, could only be stored at ground level. Many entrepreneurs therefore had the idea of completely replacing human labour with machines. This ignited the inventive spirit of Arthur Barrett. In 1954, in Northbrook, Illinois, he and his company Barrett Electronics invented the "Guide-O-Matic", the world's first driverless vehicle. It wasn’t until around 1980 that the term Automated Guided Vehicle (AGV) became established.

The AGV developed simultaneously across several continents, demonstrating amazing global co-operations and mergers. Over the 200-year history of Dematic, almost all of its visionary and innovative companies and their successors have played a role in that development.

The inventor of the AGV, Barrett Electronics, was acquired by Dematic's predecessor, Mannesmann Demag, in 1982. EMI, the famous record producer and marketer of the Beatles, was responsible for the European premiere of the AGV in 1956, which originated from its own R&D department, EMI Laboratories.

In Germany, the AGV emerged a few years later and dates back to around 1962/63. Belgian company Egemin, which merged with Dematic in 2017, became one of the largest players in the 70s. Wagner Fördertechnik from Reutlingen, a partner of Egemin since 1970, also launched its first unmanned vehicle onto the market in 1963 and was world-famous for its AGVs in the 80s and 90s.

Today, a good 125 years after Wagner was founded, the Dematic parent company KION Group operates a competence centre for narrow-aisle machines from Still and Linde MH at this very location in Reutlingen. In 2010 Dematic also acquired HK Systems, which was founded in 1969 in North America under the name Harnischfeger Industries Inc. and supplied AGVs in cooperation with other companies. The Australian AGV specialist NDC Automation followed in 2016.

To adapt the AGV to ever more complex requirements, these companies have kept a close eye on other industries and disciplines. Innovations in electronics, computer technology and sensor technology have made increasingly complex control units and systems possible. The first AGVs were based on train technology, at the time referred to as tugger trains. When it came to establishing the very first unmanned push vehicles, Barrett was once again a step ahead: The "Stop&Drop" was launched in the mid-1970s. This driverless pallet truck for double pallets was able to unload the pallets automatically at predefined positions.

The end of this decade marked the invention of the Unit Load AGV.

Dematic's predecessor, Mannesmann Demag, produced the "Unicar" and registered it as a trademark in 1983. From that point onwards, loading units of all kinds could be handled between workstations.

Progress in navigation methods had a direct impact on flexibility. The first AGVs had very simple tracking technology and at first were oriented using coloured strips on the floor. The signals from the colour strip were transmitted via an optical sensor to a motor on the steering wheel, which moved the wheel accordingly. Sensors were by no means common at this time. Mechanical switches, emergency stop devices and bumpers protected the AGV from its surroundings and vice versa. The "Mailmobile" AGV from 1976, a revolutionary invention by Lear Siegler Inc., a subdivision of the Learjet company which later became Schlafhorst Automation, was an automatically operated rack for mail distribution in large buildings. The AGV found its way around using an invisible fluorescent strip on the ground combined with a sensor for ultraviolet light.

Later, the vehicles were navigated by a wire mounted below the ceiling, followed by a wire embedded in the floor. Grid navigation worked in a similar way. Coupled navigation, which originated in seafaring, was based purely on the departure point and was fairly imprecise. Track guiding using magnets also became a popular method. With the very first technologies, the stopping points and transfer points were marked with floor magnets, which were detected by the vehicle sensor.

Thanks to technological advances, particularly in the IT and scanner sectors, laser navigation was introduced around 1995. This type of navigation was significantly advanced by Schlafhorst Automation, which was taken over by Egemin at the turn of the millennium. Physical guidelines have thus become obsolete. The flexibility of the AGV improved significantly. Redirections could be achieved with minimal effort. The technology quickly became very popular. The LGV (Laser Guided Vehicle) thus became synonymous with the AGV. With the introduction of navigation based on features of the surrounding environment, it was possible to dispense with any room markings.

However, it is not just the type of navigation that has changed significantly over time. While the very first AGVs, including the pioneering device of 1954, were powered by lead-acid batteries, followed by lead-acid gel batteries, the next step was nickel-cadmium batteries. Nowadays, lithium-ion batteries are booming. The batteries were either designed to be replaceable or the AGVs drove to the charging station when there were no pending orders. Even at the end of the 60s there were devices available for automatic battery charging.

Over the decades, the AGV has developed in terms of productivity, cost reduction, flexibility, reliability, precision and safety. The AGV has always operated tirelessly and inconspicuously, ensuring orderly processes and establishing itself as a valued member of the team who nobody wants to send into retirement even after 65 years.


About Dematic

Dematic is a leading supplier of integrated automated technology, software and services to optimize the supply chain. Dematic employs over 7,000 skilled logistics professionals to serve its customers globally, with engineering centers and manufacturing facilities located around the world. Dematic is one brand under the KION Group of companies and has implemented more than 6,000 integrated systems for a customer base that includes small, medium and large companies doing business in a variety of market sectors.

Headquartered in Atlanta, Georgia, Dematic is a member of KION Group, a global leader in industrial trucks, related services and supply chain solutions. Across more than 100 countries worldwide, the KION Group designs, builds and supports logistics solutions that optimize material and information flow within factories, warehouses and distribution centers. The company is the largest manufacturer of industrial trucks in Europe, the second-largest producer of forklifts globally and a leading provider of warehouse automation.

Media Contact

Jessica Heinz
Dematic GmbH
Director Marketing and Communications CE
Martinseestr. 1
63150 Heusenstamm
Phone: +49 69 583025 125
Mobile: +49 172 65 98 590

Manuel Nakunst
Sputnik GmbH
Presse and Public Relations
Hafenweg 9
48155 Muenster
Phone: +49 251 62 55 61-14
Mobile: +49 172 52 56 514
Fax: +49 251 62 55 61-19