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Forget cars — for one Spaniard the autonomous future is forklifts

By Rodrigo Orihuela  /  Bloomberg

An engineer watches an automated guided vehicle follow a taped line during testing inside the Asti S.A.U. factory in Madrigalejo del Monte, Spain, on May 16.

Photo: Bloomberg

In Burgos, a province in central Spain better known for archaeological digs and blood-sausages than for innovation, engineer Veronica Pascual is building automated vehicles. Not cars though, but forklifts, stackers and pallet trucks.

Pascual, a 38-year-old aeronautical engineer, owns Asti S.A.U., a company that produces so-called AGVs, or automated guided vehicles — mobile robots used in factories and warehouses that do not require human intervention to move.

While tech companies from Alphabet Inc to Uber Technologies Inc are scrambling to make self-driving cars, far less attention is paid to other, less sexy types of vehicles, opening a niche for companies like Asti, whose vehicles are used for moving a range of goods, from large packs of food boxes to 30 tonne airplane parts.

The robotics service market is growing fast. Bank of America Merrill Lynch expects robots to be performing 45 percent of all manufacturing tasks by 2025, compared with 10 percent in 2015.

The bank also estimates the industrial logistics, packaging and materials market will be valued at US$31 billion by 2020.

Despite the opportunity, there are few firms trying to take over the factory floor.

“Most robotics investments still go on industrial equipment,” said Mehdi El Alami, a partner at consultancy Roland Berger LLC, adding that only 2 percent is spent on logistics.

Caterpillar Inc and General Electric Co are among the few that have invested, having both backed Clearpath Robotics, a Canadian start-up focused on developing autonomous vehicles that move goods around factories.

Nissan Motor Co and BMW AG are among the automakers testing and using autonomous vehicles in their factories.

The ever-growing competition for the ultra-fast delivery of goods will speed up the emergence of robotization as the only means to capture more profitable revenue, El Alami said.

Asti hopes to cash in on the trend. Operating in 15 countries, it counts the likes of PSA Group Ltd, the manufacturer of Peugeot and Citroen cars, drugmaker GlaxoSmithKline PLC and Spanish foodmaker Campofrio Food Group SA among its clients.

Asti’s sales jumped five-fold between 2012 and last year to 20 million euros (US$23 million), with plans to hit 100 million euros by 2020. Last year, the company sold a total of 956 vehicles.

“The US is a big market for growth, because there aren’t many people doing these type of projects there,” Pascual said in an interview in her factory.

PepsiCo Inc and Procter & Gamble Co are among its clients, as is Mexican breadmaking giant Grupo Bimbo SAB, which uses Asti’s vehicles to move pallets with bread from its plastic wrapping station to the warehouse at one of its Spanish plants.

Founded by Pascual’s parents in 1982, the company is housed in a 5,500m2 building at the end of a shabby road. About 150 employees clad in red jackets and black T-shirts build automated vehicles with names like RoboFasts, Easybots and Hardbots.

On one side of the factory, engineers and other employees hunch over tables working with the patented technology that allows the vehicles to rely on sensors and lasers to guide their movements.

Much of the space is given up to testing, some vehicles moving freely while others trundle down predesigned corridors.

One project is focused on automated battery-changing modules, where vehicles can have their low-charge batteries replaced automatically, without human intervention.

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