Automotion has earned an enviable reputation for significant breakthroughs in conveyor and sortation technologies. Gene Newman reports on the company's innovative designs for materials-handling systems, and the crucial role it plays in retail, catalogue and e-commerce distribution centers, mass merchandising and streamlining production facilities.
Automotion, Inc., of Oak Lawn, Ill., had been a provider of value-added services long before that became a buzz phrase in the industrial world. Established in Oak Lawn in 1967, the firm was originally a Midwestern distributor of conveyors and conveyor accessories for Olson Conveyor. But it did not take long for the founders — Tim Gorham Sr., Roy Scheck and Hank Hejmanowski — to realize that they could be of far greater service to customers if they controlled every aspect of the business from design to production, installation and technical support.
Very quickly, the new company became a systems integrator. Olson supplied the conveyors, and Automotion designed and built the special components customers needed to solve their particular problems. Throughout the 1970’s, Automotion internalized more and more of the manufacturing and was soon producing conveyors for distributors of bulk mail, catalogues, apparel, medical products, pharmaceuticals and beverages.
The key to its success from the first day was an aggressive problem-solving approach to customers. Gorham, the sole survivor among the three founders, recalls, “We listened to our customers so we could truly understand their requirements. Then we designed and built a system that solved their materials-handling problems. Feedback from our customers was like gold. We continually strove to improve upon our existing design based on the input of the people who were using the system on a daily basis.”
This basic concept is still alive and well at Automotion. Today, the company is one of the top five manufacturers in the $7.3 billion conveyor systems market. Automotion also maintains a strong family presence in its management. Gorham still sits on the board of directors and is the owner of Warehouse Systems, Inc., an Automotion distributor. His son, Tim Jr., is manager of engineering. John Hejmanowski, the son of Hank Hejmanowski, is vice president of sales, and John’s son, Neil, works in the firm’s information systems department. Mike Scheck, son of Roy Scheck, heads Automotion’s biggest distributor, Warehouse Equipment, Inc., in Elk Grove, Ill.
Automotion is unique in being one of the few remaining U.S.-owned and -operated conveyor and sortation equipment manufacturers with the capabilities for turnkey electrical and mechanical manufacturing, installation and field service. “Our biggest strength is that we are a manufacturer,” says Marketing Manager Joe O’Connor. “We have internal control of up to 70 percent of the total conveyor system. That puts us in the driver’s seat and provides assurance to the customer as to the integrity of the system.”
Automotion has invested in up-to-the-minute technology in its new 140,000 square-foot facility in Oak Lawn. The factory’s equipment includes the latest in computer numerically controlled technology, such as cut-to-profile laser machines, turret punches, brake presses, rolling machines, sawing centers and punch presses. Plus, each machine is connected to the Automotion design network so that the latest revision drawing is just a few clicks away.
“We are capable of accessing and downloading manufacturing drawings so rapidly that setup time is no longer a dirty word,” says Rick Turrentine, manufacturing engineer. The network has also enhanced the facility’s efficiency. Advanced software has boosted the efficiency of other company sectors as well. Its advanced enterprise resource planning program coordinates all of the day-to-day operations, controlling sales order entry, work orders, purchase orders, packing slips and invoices. The engineering side uses a configure-to-order (CTO) system to accurately capture engineering data and configure assembly-level components for manufacturing. CTO “empowers our managers with the information they need to better schedule personnel and manufacturing resources, and has significantly increased productivity,” says John Polak, manufacturing manager. “Tasks that used to be performed consecutively are now being performed concurrently, which impacts our lead times dramatically.”
Other facilities at the site include a 25,000 square-foot research and development laboratory. The firm’s work force of 250, predominantly engineering personnel, has grown more than 25 percent in the last year in response to increased business at home and abroad, including substantial orders from Canada, Mexico, Belgium, France, Japan and the United Kingdom.
Beginning in its first year of business, when it introduced the first swing-arm sorter for a belt conveyor, Automotion established a reputation for innovation that carried it to many relationships with customers that still exist today. The company blazed new trails in the 1970s and 1980s with its introduction of the bow arm sorter, the trap arm sorter, the sliding shoe sorter and a counterweighted sensor roller that required no springs or linkages. It continued the pioneering tradition in the 1990s with the development of the frame-mounted axle isolator insert, which significantly reduced noise levels caused by the vibration between the steel axle and the steel side frame.
Automotion continues to develop new conveying concepts today. Its recently launched new Axle Isolator Noise Reduction System offers a dramatic reduction in conveyor noise levels in large warehouses, manufacturing plants and distribution centers. The company can also design conveyors using standard or high-speed rollers to achieve the health and safety benefits of the Axle Isolator Noise Reduction System without sacrificing system speed or package-handling capabilities.
In the last decade, Automotion became the first manufacturer to incorporate combined photo-eye/solenoid module technology (which controls product accumulation) into an integrated side-frame/guardrail assembly. The company’s Photo-Eye Accumulation Conveyor increases throughput, reduces noise and accumulates a wider variety of product loads. Mounted directly on the conveyor side frame, the custom-designed integral photo-eye/solenoid valve module locally monitors and controls each zone of the accumulation conveyor, while multicolored LED displays furnish constant status reports. Its built-in time delay feature prevents intermittent slowing of the product load that would otherwise occur when using a mechanical sensor. The photo eye also eliminates the need for sensor rollers and thereby contributes to noise reduction. The new device can also sense the presence of a wide variety of product loads, including very light items and those with uneven bottoms, and can be skewed horizontally to sense totes or other products that leave gaps when accumulated. Products can be released zone by zone or as one long train without requiring any air or electrical modifications.
Meeting the E-challenge
Automotion is now targeting new opportunities created by the e-commerce industry. “Our economy is steadily transitioning towards the dot.com world, and Automotion is benefiting by meeting the warehousing requirements for the new e-commerce based businesses,” says Merle Davis, the company’s president. “We emphasize the need for our customers to fully evaluate their e-commerce requirements. You have to do more than simply create and market an online catalogue. There’s a delicate balance between the monies spent on the creative nature of the Web site and the customer support process. You need to be sure you’ve got the infrastructure in place not only to handle direct shipments, but to also be prepared for other related online services such as gift wrapping and product returns. Automotion is perfectly suited to supply a new start-up system or to help customers transition their existing warehousing system for e-commerce.”
One significant example of Davis’ point is Crate & Barrel, which opened a distribution center in Naperville, Ill., in 1998 to serve 75 of its retail outlets and handle direct fulfillment to e-commerce, bridal registry and corporate customers. The center uses Automotion’s AutoSort XII, a high-speed, positive-divert sorter that accurately transports, tracks and gently sorts all types of carton sizes and configurations at designated points. It also includes, literally, miles of Automotion’s live and gravity roller conveyors and incline/decline belt conveyors. Noting the center’s 99.9 percent order-fulfillment accuracy, Dan DeGross, manager of Crate & Barrel’s warehouse operations, says, “We appreciate Automotion’s ability to save us time and money by identifying and correcting potential problems early on in the development stages.”
Another Automotion project was the numerous retail and e-commerce distribution centers completed for office-supplies giant Staples. One facility, which handles 8,000 cartons a day, includes the Automotion Auto-Pass device that diverts cartons to specific pick modules along a computer-controlled loop. Automotion’s Pop-Up Wheel Sorter moves cartons into appropriate order-filling zones, and the Automotion Zero Pressure Accumulation conveyor handles product loads from 8 ounces to more than 250 pounds at up to 240 feet per minute.
Automotion’s sortation equipment and almost two miles of conveyors are part of the Dart Corporation warehouse in Naperville, which came on line in 1999. The equipment provides the versatility that is vital to the facility, one of 36 operated by Dart, a third-party logistics supplier that handles the distribution of a wide range of products for its clients. TwinLab Utah Division’s new five-level distribution facility in American Fork, Utah, includes a conveyor system furnished by Automotion distributor Warehouse Systems, which has helped provide a 99.4 percent accuracy level as well as increases in productivity and efficiency.
“Our new system allows a picker to make 500 picks per hour, more than double our previous system,” says TwinLab Vice President Terry Rey. “Without the Automotion conveyor, our new system simply wouldn’t work. It is as important to us as a transmission is to a car.” Other big name companies benefiting from their custom designed Automotion conveyor system include Kohl’s, the well-known apparel and general-merchandise retailer; publishing giants Random House and McGraw Hill; and soft-drink king Coca-Cola Enterprises.