UNEX Manufacturing prides itself on solving conveyor problems for its manufacturing and distribution users.
By Tim O’Connor
Warehouse picking is a labor-intensive process that puts a lot of physical strain on employees. As a conveyor manufacturer, UNEX already made rollers and was positioned to solve some of the issues with manual picking methods. The company developed Pick-Plank, a system that mounts on top of a pallet and slides items forward to allow warehouse workers to more easily pick products toward the back of the pallet at a faster, less strenuous rate.
The technology was a departure from UNEX’s traditional conveyor products, but it fit the company’s know-how and capabilities. “We’re staying within our comfort zone but expanding the types of products in that comfort zone,” Vice President of Operations Howard Mcilvaine says.
Pick-Plank earned UNEX several awards for innovation and ergonomics, but real-world use showed a few areas where it could improve. UNEX is developing a new version of Pick-Plank that takes into account feedback from customers and will cost less.
Mcilvaine says some current Pick-Plank customers will have an opportunity to test out the new version and submit further feedback before it releases. The system is an example of how UNEX works with its users to make meaningful impacts on their distribution and warehousing operations, he says.
Frank Neuwirth started UNEX in 1964 with a few partners. As the company, grew, Neuwirth bought out his partners and his sons and daughters entered the business, transforming UNEX into a family-owned company. Two of Neuwirth’s sons, Brian and Mark, eventually purchased the shares from their other siblings and are now the majority owners of the company. Mark Neuwirth’s son, Brian C. Neuwirth, also bought into the business and represents the third generation of family ownership.
The only owner not part of the Neuwirth family is Mcilvaine, who has been an employee at UNEX since 1997 and purchased a piece of the company three years ago .
Being family-owned creates a different atmosphere and set of priorities for UNEX from its corporate-run competitors. “We’re a close-knit company,” Mcilvaine says, adding that many employees have worked for UNEX for decades. “Once you’ve been here a little while you’re part of the family. We care about our employees and I think they care about our company and us.”
The businesses UNEX works with are an extension of its family, Mcilvaine says. The materials-handling industry is a small market where professionals get to know each other even as they change roles. That familiarity leads to strong bonds, and knowing who it can depend on is important for a company such as UNEX that sells primarily through distributors. “It’s a long-lasting work friendship,” Mcilvaine says of the company’s distributors.
UNEX picking and conveyor equipment is found at range of facilities. The company’s biggest customers include UPS, which it sells to directly, and FedEx and Amazon. Automotive parts manufacturers use UNEX products to supply parts on the assembly line, and national retailers use UNEX conveyors to unload trucks. The largest market for the company’s products is the food and wine industry, which includes customers such as national food distributor Sysco.
The market guides UNEX’s product development. “Historically, we started out as a powered conveyor company servicing the liquor industry in this area of the country [the Northeast],” Mcilvaine says. “Right around 2000 we discontinued all our powered conveyors.”
It used to be that clients wanted a full installation, so UNEX had a dedicated engineering staff to design, build install and service the system. The process was complicated, expensive to staff and difficult to maintain. “To keep up with that industry you basically had to become a software company and we just weren’t ready to become a controls and software company,” Mcilvaine explains.
At the same time UNEX was rethinking powered conveyors, it launched its first Span-Track products, a gravity conveyor that maximized pick rates and work flow without needing a complicated motor. Customers quickly embraced Span-Track and it became one of the company’s most profitable systems. The demand for Span-Track led UNEX to drop powered systems entirely. “We decided the space in the building was more valuable making gravity conveyors,” Mcilvaine says.
UNEX continues to refine its gravity-based designs and develop new equipment that can be customized to each customer’s requirements. Flow Cell is a portable and modular rack that can be fit with a conveyor or shelving for storage. It’s also an example of how UNEX listens to its customers when developing new products. Clients were buying racks from other companies and then modifying them to add conveyors.
However, racking manufacturers were pushing for bigger orders and often sold distributors larger structures than what was truly needed. UNEX worked with distributors and end users to create something that was smaller, portable and could be fulfilled by one source. “That was a good customer-requested product development,” Mcilvaine says.
Another area where UNEX is seeing interest from customers is in customized options. Ninety percent of UNEX’s systems are already made to order, but customers are finding even more ways to enhance the capability of the products. During routine visits to users’ facilities, UNEX salespeople have been impressed with the aftermarket additions clients have made to their products. A worker who needs a place to hang their coat might jury-rig a coat hanger into the conveyor, for example. “Most of the time it’s the maintenance department or the employees themselves rigging something else,” Mcilvaine says.
UNEX realized it could come up with add-ons that looked more professional than those makeshift structures. In the past year, the company has taken inspiration from the user-created items and is developing a lineup of accessories that can attached to its conveyors.
As it develops its own add-ons, UNEX is looking for manufacturers that produce complementary products. Those opportunities could include powered tugger vehicles, similar to the small caddies grocery clerks use to push around long rows of grocery carts.
UNEX has begun testing powered tuggers in its own facility, but Mcilvaine believes the company could partner with a manufacturer to sell the vehicles alongside UNEX conveyors as a smaller alternative to fork trucks. “I think it’s a no-brainer to make my plant better with them, but I also think it’s something that would go well with what I’m trying to sell,” he says.
UNEX’s willingness to respond to customers and offer new kinds of equipment is helping the company grow by 6 to 10 percent annually. “This year is a big year for us for playing in our own manufacturing facility to see what accessories we can sell with our products,” Mcilvaine says.
Over the past year, UNEX has increased its community support by becoming involved with two autism organizations, Spectrum360 and New Road Schools of New Jersey. “They were looking to find more job opportunities for their adults with autism or high school students with autism,” Howard Mcilvaine says. New Road Schools is a private school serving children with disabilities from age five to 21 while Spectrum360 offers educational and therapeutic programs for children and adults on the autism spectrum.
Each week, high school students involved with New Roads Schools and adults from Spectrum360 work a shift at UNEX’s facility knitting hardware bags. The students receive training through an externship program while the adults are considered paid, part-time workers. After a year of running a successful program at UNEX, the company is helping the organizations reach out to other New Jersey manufacturers through commercials and networking.