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The data shift

James Burman interviews Harry Watts, commercial director at SEC Storage, about the company's work with logistics data, and why the wider industry needs to understand its importance.

Harry Watts.JPGJames Burman (JB): Thanks for agreeing to speak to me, Harry. Please could you give a brief overview of what you do?

Harry Watts: (HW): I’m the commercial director at SEC Storage. My role covers a few bases, but the predominant thing I’m responsible for is how SEC works and our approach to warehouse design. Naturally, that lends itself highly to the data side of things, and I’ve spent the last three years redesigning our approach to be increasingly data-driven as a result.

JB: That leads me on to my next question. For those who aren’t aware, are you able to explain what SEC does as a business, in summary?

HW: Essentially, we’re a provider of complete warehouse solutions. We primarily work in the SME industry, not exclusively, but primarily. What that typically means is we would work with a client that is looking to move into a new warehouse, or trying to understand how to use theirs better.

We analyse their requirements, we come up with a solution ourselves from that analysis, which we then engineer and implement on site. That would usually mean we’d deliver all the hardware, the racking, shelving, electrics. But we are increasingly also integrating those together in a warehouse control programme or management system.

I think what we specialise in particularly, is designing innovative solutions that are driven by data analysis; and we try and ensure our solutions are bespoke to the clients needs, rather than just the traditional setup of long rows of pallet racking; although we can do that too if it’s the right solution.

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JB: A congratulations are in order on recently winning the data excellence awards at the Lloyds bank National Business Awards, which is a huge deal. What does that mean to you personally and as a business as well?

HW: It’s a massive moment actually, we are over the moon. To win an award as prestigious and competitive as this, it’s kind of a validation of the journey we’ve been on in the last three and a half years, in redesigning our processes to be able to deliver a better experience for our customers.

When we started this project, we had aspirations to grow the business and make a difference to our industry, and to disrupt it really. I think that while we’ve always been quite proud of what we’ve achieved, for someone like the Lloyds Bank National Business Awards to recognise the innovation behind what we’ve done it’s hugely significant.


JB: Let’s talk about data – it’s why we’re here. In specifically the SME warehouse storage industry, which you briefly mentioned earlier, data excellence is often a virtually unused term, why do you think that is and what can be done about it?

HW: I think the ‘why’ is probably a result of historical biases. Historically, warehouses have always been viewed as a cost centre. It’s been a generic view of the industry that these are cost centres to be managed, and really, it’s about getting stuff through as cheaply as possible.

I think in recent times there has been a recognition more globally, so it’s starting to change, that actually intelligent warehouses, warehouses that can add value, have huge potential impact. You can see the Amazon-isation of the industry as an example of that. There are lots of big famous examples.

That’s probably why there is such a shortage of understanding of the power of data. Nobody has really started to look at what they can do with warehouses, intelligent warehouses haven’t been needed, so business intelligence hasn’t been needed. Now that’s changing, as we start to look at warehouses in a different way.

The second question you asked was, what can be done about it? And truthfully, I think quite a lot needs to be done. In my opinion, primarily there are two things we need to do. Firstly, awareness. Understanding the impact of data, and understanding the impact of intelligent warehouses on your supply chain and on your logistics capability. People like yourself in the media, our trade bodies, they need to push that message as hard as they can, because there is definitely a shortage of understanding at the moment. Typically, I don’t think it’s a hard sell. Once people understand and can see the benefits, they’re generally switched on to it. And it makes sense.

Which then brings you to the second phase, which I think is going to be more problematic, and that’s the re-education we are going to have to go through as an industry, as a collection of professionals, because historically it’s not a requirement to be data intelligent. We’re going to have to challenge people that have been in the industry for a long time, so they can adapt to this new data-embedded age. We also need to try and become more attractive to the younger generation entering the workforce, who, historically, if we’re being brutally honest, haven’t viewed logistics as a particularly exciting option. We need to make sure the education programmes that are there when they get here are centred around doing business with data at the heart of it.

Because I think it’s not just true of warehouses, but logistics in general, artificial intelligence, machine-learning, these types of technologies, big data analytics, these are the future. I think we’ve got a lot of catching up to do compared to other industries.

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JB: I appreciate it has been coming for a little while, but has the need for a ‘data-shift’ been further accelerated by the pandemic or Brexit?

HW: I definitely think it has. Necessity is the mother of all invention, isn’t it? The supply chain uncertainty caused by COVID and Brexit has been very significant to people, as is the environmental challenges causing disruption to supply chains. I think there is a general acceptance now that probably wasn’t there three or four years ago, that we have to change and become more intelligent about how we doings.

JB: I wondered if you were able to provide an example of a particularly successful past project for SCE?

HW: I think there are a few we could look at, but the one that immediately springs to mind is a solution which we have previously won the Logistics Awards Innovation category for – the Christie Lites project.

Christie Lites was an interesting one, because essentially what we were tasked with was trying to store a non-palletised, big and bulky product (essentially, it’s staging trusses and kits) in the most efficient, effective way possible. This was a real problem, because the only way it had previously been achieved was through extremely wide-aisle pallet racking, which consumed excessive amounts of operational floor space, and increased travel distances substantially.

When we looked at the data we found there was essentially only a limited range products to be stored in the area; they just moved them in large quantities, which informed us that moving to denser, deeper pick faces, would be better. However, that had some significant technical challenges to overcome; because these were oversized products, and they weren’t palletised in any way, there was no available equipment on the market.

So, we used the operational data to test and formulate a unique shuttle system concept that was entirely bespoke to Christie Lite’s operation. It included both physical and software modifications to help it locate, pick-up and move the loads around the system without sacrificing on operational speed. This was something that had never been done before in the UK. Christie Lites was a particularly innovative example of how our brand can combine data with both physical hardware and software intelligence.

JB: What role do you think blockchain has in all of this?

HW: I actually think blockchain has all the potential to be one of the most important technological developments we have had in recent times, if we can get over some of the challenges that are there with it (particularly the environmental cost of mining). I think having a technology that allows you to create a single point of truth, which essentially blockchain promises, is inherently very secure, and because it builds that trust could be revolutionary in terms of a security perspective. It’s something that SEC has been investigating for several years now.

I think one of the things that probably isn’t given enough coverage when it comes to tackling our environmental problems, which we all as logisticians have to have at the forefront of our minds, is asking where did the products come from? It’s extremely difficult for most businesses today to be able to trace the sustainability and ethicality of resources all the way to the source.

Blockchain technology offers the ability for us to do that. Creating a secure chain of information that is “unhackable”, allows us to trust that data. Which I think will be central in enabling us as businesses to be able to make good decisions about what we buy and where it comes from. Also, it goes further down the chain the other way, to consumers. In all honesty, consumers are going to be the ones that drive the economy towards green technologies, but they need the information to be able to do it. I think blockchain, holds the key to that.

JB: Data is a delicate thing. I’m curious to know what SEC does to ensure its employees are correctly trained and ready to work with client data.

HW: It’s an essential part of our strategy over the last few years, as we do handle large quantities of sensitive data.

Firstly, you identified in the question, education is essential. I think every one of our employees who touches our customer data is trained in understanding its significance and the responsibility that goes with it. Then, there are practical steps taken to ensure they do things in a way that doesn’t open any risks to that data being misused, or misplaced, or any of the other negative outcomes we know can happen when handling sensitive information. I think one of the things we do particularly well is to be extremely diligent in the way in which we control the storage of data. We use the right technologies, sure, but we also make sure what we ask for in the first instance doesn’t carry any identifier information we don’t need (such as product names, or personal details), that could be sensitive. We ensure also, that our people are trained to edit and audit datasets with this in mind upon receipt.

But secondly, as well it’s about understanding the data protocols in terms of data management aren’t just there for housekeeping reasons. One of the things we do is we delete and remove all data we’re done with, so that we’re not holding historical data.

I think our employees understand that’s not just so we keep our server size down, although that’s a happy benefit. It’s also because that removes the risk to our customers. Managing that risk is absolutely essential.

JB: I’m keen to know how important it is for warehouse operators, pickers for example, to be aware of the role that data plays in logistics.

HW: I think it’s very important. I think that for us to be able to truly harness the potential our industry has, the integrity of the data we store is really important. That’s one thing. But just a general culture of driving intelligence into our operations needs to be adopted throughout our organisations. And, it starts with the people actually completing the tasks, those that are actually going out picking, packing, and doing those sorts of things.

There is a genuinely true saying of rubbish in, rubbish out, when it comes to data. So understanding the significance of what you’re doing, and that it isn’t just a way of monitoring you, or micro-managing you, it’s actually a way of driving improvements to the whole rest of the business, is absolutely essential.

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JB: I wonder if there’s anything on the horizon for SEC? Anything big?

HW: We’ve launched SEC Exports, which means we’re now in a position where we can offer what we do in the UK – things I think we do really well - anywhere in the world. But we are particularly focusing on fast-growth, developing markets such as Africa and Central Asia.

There are a number of reasons for that. If you look at Africa, which is our predominant market, you’re talking about a potential economic superpower if harnessed correctly. The growth in logistics there is going to be colossal over the next 10 to 20 years, and we’re lucky enough to have both the expertise and planning horizons to be there to support it.

Even in the short term, the growth coming out of Africa is unbelievable. What Africa needs, in addition to the financial investment and infrastructure investment coming into it, is the investment of expertise. I think that’s something in particular that SEC are really keen to offer, and try to add value to companies that are setting up, or evaluating existing operations out there.

Of course, domestically, in recent years, SEC has taken on more and more innovative, exciting, larger scale, larger impact projects, and we’re excited to carry on doing that in the future too; we have some amazing projects on site and in the pipeline which we can’t wait to see come to fruition.

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