“People see our systems on the Internet and they think that they want to have one to move material from one side of their facility to the other; we don’t do that. We build fully integrated systems. Our systems keep track of all the inventory and all the orders coming in and out; so, fully integrating the material flow from when it comes in the building until it goes out,” says Bill Leber, business development director at Swisslog Logistics, Inc.
Swisslog provides automated warehouse and order-fulfillment solutions. It designs and builds systems within its customers’ warehouses and distribution centers that efficiently transport goods throughout the facility. This is done at a level that cannot be achieved manually. Swisslog specializes in designing and building automated systems that are made to function within refrigerated warehouses. The size of the frozen goods section in one’s favorite grocery store has probably grown considerably in recent years.
One of Swisslog’s most popular systems is known as Autostore. This system literally turns the traditional method of storing goods on its side. Instead of a warehouse with rows of inventory being stored on shelves, the inventory is instead stored across the floor space in square compartments, which abut against each other, forming a grid that is not unlike a tic-tac-toe board. Wheeled robots then glide over the top of the grid and retrieve the items below them. The entire operation is coordinated by computer software that Swisslog also designs, requiring human intervention only at the very end of the process when the goods are about to leave the door and be loaded on a truck.
Leber says, “The part of the jobs that we automate are the least desirable and they’re jobs that people have trouble filling because they’re strenuous jobs in difficult environmental conditions. Our industry has turnover rates of up to 60 percent, and newer employees have higher error rates and lower safety rates. Errors are expensive for companies and accidents are not good. So our automated systems are safer and more cost effective.”
Swisslog designs the systems at its facility in Newport News and then travels to install the systems where they will reside. Once the systems are up and running, they can be monitored remotely from the same facility in Newport News. Swisslog has doubled the space in which it operates and doubled the number of its employees since 2011. Leber feels confident that the trend towards automation is getting stronger and predicts that the company will continue to see this type of growth in the foreseeable future.
Swisslog is proud to recruit many of its employees from local colleges and universities. Leber states that a significant number of its workers are graduates of Christopher Newport University and Old Dominion University. The industry is also proud to work with Thomas Nelson Community College on its Mechatronics Technology Program. This program trains candidates, placing them with jobs in the operation of complex manufacturing systems, similar to the type produced by Swisslog. The growth of this sector and the steady supply of qualified local candidates make Swisslog an asset to the local economy.
Leber is married and the father of two sons and two daughters. He enjoys hiking in his spare time, especially in the New England area. “When I was in Vermont, hiking with my wife recently, we hiked two of the worst miles the Appalachian Trail has to offer,” he says. “It was just mud puddle after mud puddle. But we came across this really neat spot where a railroad line had existed 100 years ago. It had served the timber industry but now exists only as a green tunnel through the forest. It’s neat to see the evidence of industrial activity in such a remote area, and to see nature slowly reclaiming the land.”
TO THE POINT:
Swisslog Logistics, Inc.
Address: 161 Enterprise Dr., Newport News, VA 23603
Contact: Bill Leber, business development director