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Sunday, 11 November 2012 12:01

Automated systems help alleviate workforce struggles

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Automated systems help alleviate workforce struggles Courtesy photo

Speedrack Products Group Ltd. manufactures roll-formed materials handling racks at a 325,000-square-foot plant in Quincy, Mich. The company initially started in Illinois in 1954, but was purchased in 1989 by a Ron Ducharme, who owned one of the company’s main distributors, and he eventually moved it to West Michigan. Later, the company started Integrated Systems Group to help customers design their logistics centers and identify efficiencies. The company employs about 140 in Michigan and has a small manufacturing presence in Alabama. 

SPARTA — It’s certainly not a new trend for businesses looking to control their overhead to turn to automation to help reduce headcount and labor costs.

But because many companies can’t find workers, they are seeing opportunities to use automation to avoid the hassle of finding and training employees in traditionally low-skill positions.

Enter Integrated Systems Group (ISG).

The company specializes in designing material handling systems for distribution, warehouse and logistics facilities and in developing technologies to help those operations run more efficiently overall.

As fewer people want to work in distribution centers, companies have been struggling to find labor amid a shrinking workforce, said Tim Bastic, vice president at ISG.

“The impetus in our industry is to look at how make those operations more efficient with (fewer) people, not necessarily with the objective of going in and cutting out people,” Bastic told MiBiz. “Because the workforce is shrinking, we have to have more mechanized systems out there. You’re not going to have the bodies to do the order picking. That’s the challenge, which is a good thing for us because in our group, we’re focused on technology … to eliminate how many times a product is physically handled.”

ISG functions as a division of Sparta-based Speedrack Products Group Ltd., a 58-year-old materials handling rack manufacturer with a main production facility in Quincy, Mich., just east of Coldwater, where it employs about 100 people. Another 40 people work at the company’s corporate headquarters in Sparta, just north of Grand Rapids.

The pursuit of helping customers to become more efficient and cut costs starts with an engineering study, Bastic said.

“The thing that separates us from the other integrators is that when we help a customer in an engineering study to look at the return on investment, it’s very easy to say we’re going to do this and cut X amount of people,” said Joel Bos, manager of engineering and software at ISG. “We look at how we can improve their efficiency, how can we decrease the number of touches, how can we put the product in a location that requires less touches and that’s closer to shipping.”

Many systems integrators can leave savings on the table for clients when they just create a more efficient system and show clients how they can slash staffing, he said. ISG, on the other hand, works with clients to find ways to increase their business, for example, by adding another shift to their operations, Bos said.

The company worked with Husqvarna in South Carolina on an existing distribution center to create a new business in aftermarket parts. The company saw a revenue opportunity in the aftermarket business, but didn’t have an efficient distribution center, Bastic said. ISG helped Husqvarna go from 100 order pickers to just 18 per shift by completely changing the nature of the center so that product came to an order taker, rather than the other way around. The move helped Husqvarna reduce the wasted time its workers were spending by walking around the warehouse and it helped increase order accuracy, he said.

The result: Husqvarna handled three times as many orders with a fraction of the staff thanks to the smart system, Bos said.

Bastic said the automated systems can also help improve ergonomics issues and safety concerns within distribution centers, which see a lot of repetitive motion and lifting-related injuries.

Ada-based Baker Publishing Group worked with ISG to improve workflow and work on automated picking and returns systems, but recently turned to the company to study ergonomics solutions to help workers avoid having to lift heavy crates at their workstations.

Bastic said simply adding a lift device to the systems, as it did at Baker Publishing, can help employers avoid workers comp claims.

“We have been pleased to partner with (ISG) over the years as together we have enhanced our order and return processing systems,” Wes Brower, executive vice president of finance and operations at Baker Publishing Group, stated in an email. “They have improved our turnaround time to ship orders and saved labor costs by implementing a system using scanners and motorized conveyors.”

Noise can also be an ergonomics concern because many distributions centers use continuously running conveyor systems, Bastic said. To help alleviate noise issues, ISG has worked with companies to install conveyors featuring rollers with their own individual motors that run only when a product is on them. Not only do the systems help cut down on noise, but they also have significant energy savings compared to traditional systems and lower maintenance costs, he said.

Bastic said ISG and Speedrack have experienced growth in recent months, with Speedrack adding a second production shift in Quincy and the company growing its headquarters staff across the board, including in sales and engineering.

He attributed the growth to the increasing acceptance of the company’s products and services based on strong word-of-mouth marketing and long-term relationships in its niche in vertical markets including the music, hardware and publishing industries.

For example, ISG landed a major contract with Sweetwater Sound Inc. in Fort Wayne, Ind. based on a lead from conveyor manufacturer and long-time business partner TGW Logistics of Spring Lake, Bastic said. The company has also worked with Fender Guitars in California for more than 30 years, he added.

“We go in with intent to build long-term relationships,” Bastic said. “We need to have our customer’s best interest at heart (and not) complicate the relationship.”

“For us, the engineering study is a means to an end. … The engineering studies, for some people, that’s a revenue stream,” he added. “We’re coming in and saying, ‘We have to know what to build before we build it.’ We make money by providing the system. How we stay alive is to provide the different technologies … and create a system we’re both proud of. It has to work for (the client).”

Read 3216 times Last modified on Sunday, 11 November 2012 20:51

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