CHARLOTTE, NC-The Material Handling Industry of America group is recording a dramatic increase in the use of driverless vehicles on the shop floor. In a study by the group's Automatic Guided Vehicles Systems section, 72 systems were reportedly either installed or expanded in the first 6 months of 2004, compared to 47 such efforts in the first half of 2003.

According to MHIA managing executive Dick Ward, the "vast majority" of the 2004 systems were new, as opposed to add-ons to existing systems, with 93 percent going to manufacturing. Applications included those in the automotive, aerospace, food, textile, paper, chemical, rubber and plastic, and public utilities sectors.

Ward said that while his group is not making any specific projections, he believes the current trend toward increased use of driverless vehicles is in no danger of petering out. "The market has been relatively strong for the last couple of years, and it looks to continue," he says.

The single largest representative group in terms of AGV investment was automotive and aerospace, which accounted for 31 percent of orders during the study period. Rubber and plastic products were next, accounting for 15 percent. The new systems are widely distributed throughout the United States, as opposed to being concentrated in any particular area. "There's not one Mecca for automatic guided vehicles," says Ward.

Ward notes that MHIA is seeing smaller systems going to work for smaller companies, indicating industry is becoming increasingly comfortable with the technology. Today the average system consists of 3.5 driverless vehicles. This is less than half of what it was in past years, a sign that an AGV system "doesn't have to be large and complex to be justified." According to the study, larger organizations, including companies at the Fortune 500 level, accounted for 60 percent of new orders, with the remaining systems going to smaller organizations.

"It is clear based on these numbers that manufacturers of automation solutions, namely AGVs, are seeing a substantial interest in this technology and the many benefits companies can achieve through the use of this technology," Ward says. "I believe this can be attributed not only to an increasing acceptance of this proven technology but also to the fact that the technology associated with these systems has matured significantly, and as a result has become far more cost-effective."

In terms of the specific tasks being conducted by the newly installed driverlss vehicles, 59 percent of those in manufacturing are involved in transferring materials to and from storage areas. The remainder is involved in actual fabrication and assembly.

For more information on driverless vehicles, call 800-345-1815 or visit The organization also has an introductory video on AGV technology that can be downloaded from its Web site.