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UniCarriers Commits to its Employees as it Commits to Automation

As a brand name, UniCarriers is less than a decade old, dating only back to 2011. However, the company’s lineage dates back more than a century to 1914, when one of the companies now included under the UniCarriers name—Barrett, a manufacturer of manual pallet trucks—was founded. And Nissan Forklift, whose U.S. headquarters occupied the same Marengo, Ill.-based plant where UniCarriers Americas Corp. (UCA) is now based, was founded 60 years ago in Japan. And TCM, under company that’s now part of UniCarriers, began manufacturing forklifts in Japan in 1949. Clearly, a lot of the material handling history over the years has been made by UniCarriers under one name or another.

James Radous has been president of UCA, a subsidiary of Japan-based UniCarriers Corp., since 2016, having previously served in such roles as president of UCA’s retail operations and executive vice president of sales. Prior to joining UCA in 2009, he worked for such companies as Knaack (a division of Emerson), Klein Tools, Wen Products, and The Chamberlain Group.

As a manufacturer with ties to the Japanese automotive industry, UCA is both dedicated to continuous improvement and working very collaboratively with its suppliers, as UCA considers its supply chain partners to be one of its biggest competitive advantages. For instance, one of its suppliers, Leading Americas, has established warehouse operations in Marengo, the same small Midwestern town where UCA is headquartered.

IndustryWeek talked to Radous about UCA’s legacy as a U.S. material handling equipment provider, as well as its move toward automation while strengthening the capabilities of its workforce.

IndustryWeek: UniCarriers has been successful in attracting some of your suppliers to Marengo. How did that come about?

Radous: We bought a facility across the street from us about four years ago, a former packaging and corrugation company that moved to Mexico. So right across the street from us was a facility, roughly 120,000 square feet, and it affords us areas not only to do testing, but we’ve also brought the engine and the transmission manufacturing in house to be vertically integrated. Doing so, we also had space available for some of our longer lead time parts suppliers out of China and we’ve rented them space so they have an on-site office. And we also have on-site parts storage, which functions almost like a vendor-managed inventory operation. It’s pretty neat.

IW: Describe what UniCarrier’s continuous improvement culture looks like.

Radous: On Fridays, the executive team does a shop walk around the plant. We’ll visit one or two workstations where the supervisor or a member of their team will present an idea or a solution they’ve come up with. They’re all good ideas, and they’re all cost savings ideas that the employees themselves have thought about.  For instance, one person might say, “I used to have to go get this one piece of equipment here and then walk over there and I’d do this 400 times a day. But I know if I can get this machine redesigned, it’ll save me this amount of hours a day and that translates into this amount of dollars.” So people themselves are thinking of initiatives and they’re justifying their position and how they’re showing a return on investment just by thinking outside the box. It’s huge.

We have a big award ceremony once a year, and you’d be amazed by how what might seem like simple ideas, over the course of time, accumulate into quite a lot of savings and keep us cost-competitive internally. Instead of beating up suppliers all the time, we’re internally creating more efficiencies.

Also, we just received the OHSAS 18001 certification for occupational health and safety. And we’ve also received the ISO 9001 for quality management and the ISO 14001 for environmental management. And we do a lot of lean. We used to employ the Nissan Production Way, which is now the UniCarriers Production Way, and that’s been part of the DNA of the organization for a long time.

IW: What’s your strategy in terms of manufacturing technology and automation?

Radous: We had a third party do a complete manufacturing review of our business to determine how we can be most efficient, even though we run a pretty efficient plant today. So they’ve recommended different traffic flows, new dock locations, better flow-through of raw materials as well as finished goods. So we’re looking at that. So we’ve got, number one, a redesign for growth. Number two, we’ve invested in laser cutting tables. Number three, we’re using robotic welders as well as human welders, and we’re also using manipulators.

So here’s the thing: By adding automation we’ve been able to redeploy our workforce to other areas, so we haven’t cut workforce. That’s been our commitment to our employees. We have committed to them that they’re not going to lose their jobs because of our adoption of automation and robotics. Yes, they might be redeployed or reeducated into other areas, but it’s not an employee reduction plan.

So our employees aren’t afraid of technology anymore because they know it’s not taking their spot; in fact, it’s making their jobs easier and safer.

IW: Speaking of safety, you recently served as the chair of National Forklift Safety Day, so what’s your message to the industry on the current state of warehouse safety? What does the industry need to focus on?

Radous: Safety is every day. We highlight it one day of the year, but we need to reinforce safety every day. And the thing about safety is, it’s everybody’s job—the owners, the managers, the employees, the pedestrians. We can’t take these machines for granted. And you’re never done with safety. Every time we redesign one of our forklift products we look to add another safety feature. And that isn’t dictated through regulations—it’s just what we think is the right thing to do.

IW: How does ergonomics factor into safety?

Radous: Seat ergonomics is the first thing I would mention. There are different shapes and sizes that people use in the products. While you can make it ergonomically desirable, you still cannot circumvent the safety aspect. We continually look at ergonomics.

IW: How successful have you been at recruiting young talent?

Radous: We’ve actually hired a number of interns over the last several years who have turned into full-time employees in our engineering and accounting areas from Northern Illinois University. We’ve gotten very involved with their engineering department. We went to their recruitment day, and we had 200 resumes that we vetted down to 40 who are now actively working with us.

We brought our youngest and our brightest mechanical and electrical engineers to the recruitment fair, the types of young people who make this industry look great, and they showed the recruits the type of things they’re working on. And they would tell the recruits, “These aren’t just forklifts—this is the heart of commerce. We’re where everything begins.” And these students just couldn’t wait to see for themselves. We’re trying to make this industry fun and exciting again. So that’s where it begins.

Read the full article in Industry Week.