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Progress from recession

26 September 2013

As the recession hit home, Easilift refined its strategy to focus on concepts rather than commodity products. Easilift md Rob Fay tells Simon Duddy how this innovation has resulted in products like the Advanced Control Centre.

At the back end of 2007 Easilift noticed a sharp drop off in orders, meaning a good year ended badly. But managing director Rob Fay turned the challenge into an opportunity by re-engineering the company for a more competitive future.

"We sat down as a management team and restructured the business.We recognised we were working in a very mature market, companies was competing largely on price and we realised new opportunities had to come through innovation.

"We spent a lot of time collaborating with customers and doing more listening than talking. There were recurring themes centred around health and safety, energy and quality improvements." Among the initiatives undertaken by the manufacturer was to lower the energy consumption of power packs, and introduce LED to its dock lighting, with a view to bringing down costs for customers.

"We developed the dock management system, the Anti Drive Off. This was initially designed as a health and safety product, and came about through a chance meeting with Traka.

"We then realised it could add other value. The technology enables management information to be gathered enhancing security, for example. It also allows you to monitor how long it takes to load and unload a truck. Users can start mapping best practice. It also creates accountability for damage, so repair bills go down." The Anti Drive Off has seen considerable success, with Tesco recently placing an order (see later in the feature).

Advanced Control Centre
The latest innovation from Easilift is the Advanced Control Centre (ACC). This is a warehouse management system of sorts focused on loading bay operations. It gives operators a visual daschboard where they can see images of the vehicles, with information on the status of the loading bay, vehicles, dock levellers, and doors.

"When vehicles depart or arrive, you have an overview and you can assign vehicles to bays with up to date info easily to hand. ACC also monitors usage rates, again reducing operating costs. If you have 50 or 60 loading bays, often you find some are used more than others," says Fay.

"We will service equipment based on usage rates rather than servicing the lot. Operators can also use this intelligence to spread out the usage thus extending the lifetime of the products.

This info has not typically been available on traditional wms." Sales director David Whyatt adds ACC fits in with the firm's 'we take care' branding and is part of the company's effort to move from commodity sales to concept business.

He also says: "ACC consists of four modules. One is maintenance, it will record and notify if, for example, the loading bay goes down. The system will send an SMS to the relevant supplier and the supplier can then go and fix the problem hopefully before the client knows it has gone down."

Tesco win
The Dock Management System, which was jointly developed by Easilift Loading Systems and Traka, is to be installed at the Goods In section of every Tesco distribution centre across the UK, after it impressed during a pilot scheme at Tesco's distribution centre in Hinckley, Leicestershire.

Fay says the contract came about primarily because of the company's longstanding relationship with Tesco.

"We've worked for Tesco for 20 years in one form or another.

We deliver on what it expects at the right price and quality and make sure we put the projects together on time.

"We also have a very good health & safety record. If you consider the number of man hours we've worked on these projects, on some we're on site 5-6 months, so there is a lot of risk there." Tesco uses Easilift in the Goods In areas and Castell (who also recently signed a contract with Tesco, see Handling & Storage Solutions February 2011) on the Goods Out sections. They have two separate processes. For Goods In, the majority of drivers are external, with their own trailers, that remain coupled, making it largely a key management and driver coralling task. For Goods Out, the cab tends to be uncoupled from the trailer and there are no keys to manage.

The Goods In system combines Easilift's dock door and associated control equipment with Traka's electronic key control system and was tailored to complement Tesco's existing safety processes, to tackle the problem of vehicle drive-off accidents.

The Dock Management System works by using electronic keys - known as iFobs - each containing a unique electronic chip, which is individually programmed to open or close one specific door when inserted into a control panel.

At Hinckley, the system is now an integral part of a robust protocol whereby drivers are required to hand in their ignition keys when they arrive at the Goods In office. The keys are clipped to an iFob, which is inserted into the main Traka control panel, allowing a corresponding iFob to be removed and handed to the driver.

Only then is it possible to open the bay door, when an authorised operative inserts their personal iFob into a secondary control panel located adjacent to each door.

Once loading or unloading is complete, the operative closes the door. This sends a message to the Goods In control box, permitting the removal of the driver's keys - but only after the deposit iFob is inserted back into the box.

Tesco trialled the Dock Management System at 26 Goods In loading bays at the Hinckley depot. The bays are used by between 300 and 400 vehicles each day, many of which arrive from overseas, representing a stern test for the system.

"We have an excellent safety record at Hinckley, but worker safety is paramount and there is always room for improvement," says Joe Carthy, distribution health and safety manager for Tesco UK and Ireland.

"It was important therefore that the system was tested in the Goods In section, where we deal with a high volume of drivers, many of whom will be unfamiliar with the layout.

"If the system worked there, we knew that it would be able to achieve our objectives at other loading bays too." Fitting the system involved surface-mounting cabling on the inside of the exterior walls and linking 26 individual boxes stationed next to each loading bay door with the control panel in the Goods In office.

"The Easilift Dock Management System was attractive to us because by using control boxes and indicator lights, it lessens the chance of human error," says Carthy.

"This was a limited trial, but the results were fantastic. The system was easy to operate and to understand, and it took a huge amount of human element out of the process. Importantly, it made people feel safe and put them at ease." Although the system was developed with a health and safety angle in mind, it has a whole range of other benefits. The system minimises the amount of time the door is open - which can save money and reduce carbon footprints for chilled distribution centres - and, furthermore, can provide an audit trail, logging who used what door and for how long.

This can not only improve efficiency and assist companies in tracking down any missing stock, but can also help with servicing costs. By using the information recorded within the system and the reports generated, a company can devise a servicing programme which takes into account how much the door is used over a set period of time.

The Dock Management System can be retrofitted to virtually any loading bay door and will now be installed in all of Tesco's distribution centres.

Commodity to concept
Fay believes product innovations such as Advanced Control Centre and business such as the Tesco win point the way for Easilift.

He concludes: "We've developed within the group. To differentiate we had to move away from a mentality of selling a commodity.We've had to change the whole culture of our staff, it is not just a marketing change.We are proud that 80% of orders are repeat business and we believe this more sophisticated approach will stand us in good stead for the future."