Paul Roy has 26 years of experience in the material handling industry. Since 2017, he has been vice president and managing director of North America for AutoStore, a Norwegian-based supplier of automated systems that use robots to store and retrieve totes in dense vertical stacks. The company has more than 500 system installations in 30 countries.
Two years ago, Roy launched AutoStore's first U.S. corporate office and distribution center in Derry, New Hampshire. The facility, which provides sales, marketing, and service support for all of North America, features a fully functioning 3000-bin, 10-robot AutoStore system that's used for parts storage, order fulfillment, customer demos, and partner training. The site also houses the AutoStore Academy, the company's training program for sales, system design, installation, and service. To date, over 300 people have been trained through the U.S. AutoStore Academy.
Before joining AutoStore, Roy held management roles in marketing, sales, product management, and operations for companies including Kardex Remstar, Diamond Phoenix, System Logistics, and Modula. He is a member of the Roundtable Advisory Board of MHI.
Q: How do you view the current state of the material handling market?
A: It is an interesting and challenging time for everyone in the market, especially due to the Covid-19 pandemic. While some market segments, like retail, have been struggling, others, like grocery and e-commerce, are seeing record growth. With this growth, many of these customers see a clear need to add automation to their operations. This development is a huge boost for our industry, but it's not without some challenges. For example, these very busy customers struggle to find the time and resources to give automation projects the attention they need. Likewise, material handling suppliers, such as ourselves, must limit customer site visits for both sales and deployment teams due to travel and corporate policy restrictions.
I think everyone in the market believes there will be a "slingshot" effect going into 2021. Then the question becomes: Have material handling companies prepared for this by holding onto resources during this tough time, or are they working with a reduced staff? At AutoStore, we have continued to grow our organization globally in order to be ready for the recovery.
Q: Are you seeing the market for goods-to-person systems like AutoStore growing in response to the need for social distancing?
A: Absolutely. Goods-to-person picking allows companies to meet order fulfillment requirements while keeping people at assigned workstation zones arranged at safe social distances from other operators. The AutoStore technology provides an additional advantage as all items in the system are accessible by any operator from any workstation. This minimizes the need for orders to be picked from one zone and passed to another, as is required with other types of automation.
Automation in general can be a very powerful business tool and process. Its importance is being understood now more than ever before because, in most cases, automation provides a solution for order fulfillment with reduced personnel and less need for physical contact, keeping employees safe. AutoStore is also incredibly easy to learn; in a worst-case scenario, a new operator can be trained in a matter of hours, not weeks.
Q: You have many years of experience working for companies that make automated storage systems. How have the systems changed since you began your career?
A: Technology has become faster, more flexible, easier to deploy, more dependable, smarter, and more affordable. For too many years, there was a fear of automation, and customers were plagued by paradigm paralysis—forcing them to stay with what they knew, which was manual shelving and rack-based solutions. There was a concern that if they couldn't see their stock, they wouldn't have control of it. Even if they wanted to change, they still were convinced they could never afford automation.
I think the real question now is, can they afford not to automate? I'm certain there are companies that have already automated and are grateful they did before the pandemic impacted their business. The ones who haven't now need to find a way to get initiatives in place quickly. The productivity improvements that automation provides allow customers to do the same work with fewer operators or much more work with the same number. AutoStore technology is so flexible and scalable in its design, we call it "Future-Proof."
Q: AutoStore opened its New Hampshire office, service, and parts distribution center two years ago. In light of the current pandemic, are you finding benefits to having U.S.-based operations for serving North American customers?
A: Having a fully operational U.S. headquarters has been a big part of our growth here in North America. We have a completely integrated AutoStore picking system in our warehouse. This grid stocks all of the spare parts we sell to our integrator partners. This, in turn, supports their efforts to provide critical maintenance for their installed base, much of which is located in essential supply chain operations, without having to have parts shipped here from our factory overseas. Our U.S.-based service team has been an incredible resource in handling all front-line support, especially given travel restrictions between different countries.
We continue to invest heavily in our U.S. operations, even during these challenging times, and we will keep investing in the future. We see the U.S. market as one of our most important globally, and the support of our integration partners and customers is a top priority.
Q: Last year, AutoStore was acquired by THL, which also owns Fortna and MHS. Have there been any synergies created among the sister companies?
A: As we continue to grow, there are times when additional integration partners are needed in order to add more capacity to the partner network. In fact, Fortna was added as a new global integration partner in February. They joined as the sixth integration partner we support in North America; our other important integration partners in North America are Swisslog Logistics, Bastian Solutions, Dematic, Pulse Integration, and Kuecker Logistics. Each partner is unique and brings something different to the client.
Q: It's becoming increasingly difficult to find technicians to service automated equipment. How has your AutoStore Academy helped to train technical talent?
A: The AutoStore Academy has played an essential role in our continued success on a global scale. Our integration partners provide all of the service to the customer, so it is important they be properly trained. In the U.S. alone, we have trained more than 350 people through various programs over the last three years. Although a lot of this has been hands-on with the technology here in New Hampshire, the Academy platform has been used to organize, test, and educate in parallel. Now, with restrictions on travel, the AutoStore Academy has gone virtual so that we can continue to provide high-quality training.
Q: What do you think is the most important thing companies should focus on now in their supply chains?
A: The safety of their people. I could say filling orders as fast as possible due to the high demands of today's consumer, but in the end, it's the people. Without people you can't fill these important orders or even get the product you need from your supplier to fulfill orders. If you can't find the people or they are sick or concerned about getting sick, then you have a problem. Automation, and specifically AutoStore systems, enables you to do more with less and in a very safe environment.