U.S. Army Commanding General Visits Lighthouse

Travis Association for the Blind, also known as the Austin Lighthouse, welcomed the new Commanding General of the U.S. Army Tank-automotive and Armaments Command (TACOM) to its Regional Logistic Support Center on Thursday, April 1.

Major General Darren L. Werner, John Katz of National Industries for the Blind, and their teams toured the facilities located in Taylor and Austin, Texas.  They were amongst the first to see the newest technology innovation at the warehouse, autonomous mobile robots (AMR).

General Werner, Ken Brass and Jim Meehan stand behind robot

Major Gen. Werner, Lighthouse RLSC Sr. Operations Manager Ken Brass and CEO Jim Meehan discuss new autonomous mobile robots.

Four AMR’s from Fetch Robotics, which arrived just a couple of days before the General’s visit, are being used to move products across the expansive 310,000 sqft warehouse.  As currently configured, the AMR’s will reduce the travel time when conducting receiving and order picking operations, greatly improving the throughput, capacity, and growth potential of the operation.

The Austin Lighthouse, founded in 1934 to provide training and employment opportunities to people who are blind, is not new to making investments in technology and automation.  While its production of PURELL SKILCRAFT hand sanitizer for government agencies has made headlines throughout the pandemic, the cutting-edge technology at its warehouses has been the talk of the town for years.

“Automation enables us to grow blind jobs,” said President and CEO Jim Meehan.  “Robotics and artificial intelligence make us more efficient, improves capacity, establish a work environment found commercially, and allows us to provide a better service at a more competitive rate.”

Employee operating forklift

Warehouse Specialist operates forklift during tour.

Other technology investments include blind-operated turret trucks and Vocollect, a Bluetooth headset and scanner system similar to those in use at Amazon, allowing blind workers to pick, pack and process customer orders independently.

Robert Pellechia, a visually impaired Data Systems Officer, received training from Fetch engineers to map and create jobs for the new robots. He excitedly demonstrated these functions during the tour.  “As a big sci-fi nerd, it has been exciting to be a part of this, said Pellechia. “I speak computer languages like SQL and Python, and now we get to use those skills to program robots to work in our warehouse.”

There are plans for more technology improvements at the Lighthouse, especially with Al Perales, Vice President of Business Innovation since 2020, leading the charge.

“Since my arrival here, I have always believed it is my responsibility to have the wisdom to know what to honor and preserve from past, while at the same time having the courage to re-imagine our future through innovation, “says Perales.  “I believe we must stay true to the foundation of this great organization — to our mission, grounded in humanity — and to our culture of warmth and belonging.  At the same time, we must look to the future, always evolving and innovating for our changing world.“

Alberto demonstrates how to use the folding and bagging machine as a group of people watch

Alberto Gonzales, a deafblind machine operator, demonstrates how to use the folding and bagging machine.

The tour concluded at the cleaning and repair facility in Austin.  At this location, Army uniforms and accessories are laundered, repaired, folded, and shipped out for reuse.  As General Werner toured the building, he stopped to meet with several employees, including Alberto Gonzales, a deafblind machine operator.  Gonzales demonstrated another tech innovation, the semi-automatic folding and bagging machine for uniform jackets, customized for Lighthouse employees.

To learn more about Warehousing and Distribution at the Austin Lighthouse, click here.

Watch the video below to see the robots in action.