HSS Editor Simon Duddy catches up with LAC Logistics Automation to hear how the successful modern warehouse requires a broad mix of competencies, from ‘old-school’ manufacturing to cutting-edge software development.
THE MODERN warehouse demands a blend of the mechanical and the high-tech. Systems integrator LAC Logistics Automation has a range of qualities that are not often seen, with UK-based manufacturing capability, abundant experience in a wide variety of sectors, coupled with a growing software team, backing up innovative robots from leading supplier Exotec and much else.
LAC Logistics Automation sales director Joe Metcalfe says: “The combination of these capabilities is an absolute weapon for us and is unrivalled as well. It takes a new way of thinking, but you have got to respect the old way as well.”
One way this can help companies is short lead times. As LAC Logistics Automation manufactures locally it can have standard conveyor sections built and ready to ship in 6-8 weeks.
Joe continues: “Our lead times are shorter than Tier Ones, because we’re in control of it – the workshop is just over the road.”
The control LAC Logistics Automation possesses over, not just system integration and software and solution design, but manufacture, also gives the firm more scope to create bespoke solutions for its customers.
“Everything is bespoke,” explains Joe. “Every operation is different.”
For example, LAC has recently carried out palletising work for a leading grocer. Palletising always brings variations as products arrive from different suppliers with diverse tolerances. So, the robot head that works for one box may not be optimal for another. This can create knock on impacts on how pallets are stacked and routed via conveyor as well as how boxes are handled.
“We’re really lucky that we’ve got people with lots of experience in food production and car manufacturing where you are building bespoke applications all the time to handle some really unique product loads. The last few years of growth for us has, to some extent, been down to adapting this expertise to the logistics market. It feels like we’re on a cusp of a robotics evolution, but you need depth of experience to make it work,” says business development manager John Wilson.
“I walked around a 1 million sq ft warehouse last week. There was a thousand people in it and you see the tasks they are fulfilling and that likely won’t be tolerated a few years down the line, it just won’t.”
Joe takes up the theme, suggesting there is much potential for warehousing to operate in a more automated way.
“I walked around a 1 million sq ft warehouse last week. There was a thousand people in it and you see the tasks they are fulfilling and that likely won’t be tolerated a few years down the line, it just won’t.
“People won’t want those jobs, even if there is a recession. I think warehouse occupiers will still want to cut cost and will still struggle to find labour.”
For similar reasons, 3PLs are pushing harder for automation, LAC has noticed. For one, they are struggling to source labour, and it’s also unpalatable to pay for head count in the thousands to service contracts. The evolution of technology has also helped, says Joe, as autonomous mobile robots (AMRs) are an agile, flexible solution.
“You can start small and grow it, while there is not a huge amount of implementation time and cost.”
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UK Partner for Exotec
LAC Logistics Automation is the exclusive partner for warehouse tech firm Exotec, who produce software-driven robotic picking solutions. Uniquely, the Skypod systems features robots that climb specialised racking to retrieve tote bins, allowing for particularly space efficient solutions.
LAC Logistics Automation has completed its first Exotec project in the UK, with iForce, which will go live this month (November) picking general merchandise products.
“We’re the sole integrator for Exotec in the UK and Ireland, and we believe the project will serve as a proof of concept for other end users in the UK,” says John. “We’ve seen lots of interest from end users and we are bidding for a number of major eComm and fashion projects at the moment.”
LAC is delighted with the partnership.
“They are a tech company with unrivalled hardware, and are growing massively all around the world. The UK market has sat back and watched it grow, but now we see companies getting on board.”
John explains: “They are a tech company with unrivalled hardware, and are growing massively all around the world. The UK market has sat back and watched it grow, but now we see companies getting on board. They can see it’s fast, they see the robots climb to 12 metres, which no other AMR can do, and they can see it can do a job for eComm and Omnichannel.”
An often overlooked benefit to AMR technology is ease of maintenance. Mechanical systems come with a maintenance workload, and as you scale these systems, requirements will grow. It’s not unusual for large scale systems to require 24/7 on-site maintenance teams. There is nothing inherently wrong with this, of course, if it is carried out diligently and the overall system provides the operational benefits required, but warehouse maintenance is not always tip top, says Joe.
He explains: “The big shift that’s coming in the industry is maintenance and support. With the AMRs you have less hardware, fewer moving parts and PLCs, as well as no need for an on-site team.
“The problem with maintenance in this industry is under-investment by many firms. It’s sometimes not done properly and is reliant on manual checks, including on the night shift. The world needs to change quickly. Automation needs to be maintenance free as much as possible and you need better technology, which is why we are developing condition monitoring software to plug into systems and see issues arise, as you can measure temperature, vibration and so on.
“Exotec provides a good case in point, as they monitor all projects remotely 24/7. They do something groundbreaking, in that they measure uptime. The Exotec team receives bonuses based on high uptime, so they really put their money where their mouth is.”
The Exotec partnership is one sign of the company’s diversification from its traditional customer base in manufacturing. Another is its growing relationship with a major online retailer. The latest project for the retailer is the supply of high speed labelling machines with a throughput to 1,600 per hour on parcels of varying size.
John explains: “The machine is completely bespoke, and it’s a classic case of our end-to-end offering. It’s been worked up through R&D, collaborating with the solutions guys and the client as a team, to produce exactly what they want and hit the ground running. We’ve developed the software ourselves, as well as carrying out the testing and development.
“We’ve been working with them for a number of years, ensuring systems have gone in and are seamless. We’ve done a cracking job, and we’ve increased our workload with them.”
“This is an interesting conveyor system we are working on at the moment, where we are building RFID tunnels. The products have RFID tags built-in and as they pass through the tunnel they are scanned.”
Projects are many and varied for LAC Logistics Automation. A notable conveyor-led project features RFID, with LAC again using its bespoke engineering abilities to build an RFID tunnel to scan items using tag technology from Nedap Retail to boost traceability while requiring minimal manual interaction.
Joe explains: “This is an interesting conveyor system we are working on at the moment, where we are building RFID tunnels. The products have RFID tags built-in and as they pass through the tunnel they are scanned.
“It’s an inbound system where boxes come off the containers, through the tunnel and products are received automatically, closing the shipping receipt. The boxes are then decanted into the ASRS, and there’s really no human interaction at all.”
LAC sees a lot of potential for this technology, which has traditionally been under-utilised in the warehouse.
LAC Logistics Automation has developed enormously in recent years, and is able to bring manufacturing clout, integrator intelligence and software development to bear on a very broad range of warehouse operation challenges.
John explains: “Perhaps we are still seen as simply a conveyors company? We are not. We’re a high-tech automation player, with local manufacturing capabilities. We have the firepower. We have some 140 people, with a third of that in systems and software development. And we are growing fast.”
Joe concludes: “Certainly recruitment will be key to our future. Standardisation also. We’ve created so many solutions for customers, that we are looking back at them to see what we can develop as standard products, as far as possible, that we can market to a range of customers to sort common pain points across the sector.”