James Burman (JB): Have you invested in any automation recently?
Chris Barrett (CB): Our main automation investment last year was the installation of a small item sorter at Nuneaton and another one at Winwick. These are Beumer Tilt Tray Sorter which are high speed with the latest in Sick Camera technology. They can process parcels up to 550mm x 400mm (as a single tray item) or 700mm x 400mm (as a double tray item) and have two banks of operator workstations that are used to achieve a throughput of 18,000 parcels per hour. Each machine was a £1.7m investment that has supported Hermes 50% growth in the last 12 months.
JB: What is the rationale for this investment?
CB: We identified that the majority of the parcels that we processed were less than 550 x 450mm and that we could significantly increase our network capacity by purchasing two machines that were dedicated to processing these smaller items.
JB: How does it work?
CB: The small item sorter works by having parcels delivered to workstations via automated chutes that ensure an even distribution of parcels to the 20 operator stations and the operators then place parcels directly onto the small item sorter. The latest Sick camera technology then scans the barcode and the parcel is then diverted into the correct destination. The 18,000 parcels per hour can be operated by as little as 20 operators, which if done manually would require at least double the resourcing. It also has a barcode scanning read rate of 99% and sort accuracy of 99.8%, so the machine offers very reliable sortation. The machine also travels in excess of 1.5m/s so a parcel is only on the sorter for as little as 25 seconds before it is sorted into its correct location.
JB: Have you had to adjust the operations to accommodate new automated equipment?
CB: We now have to organise the warehouses with precision in terms of the operational flows – the machines now operate at such high throughputs that the operation around the machine needs to be extremely well designed and efficient. We have invested a significant amount of effort into ‘lean manufacturing’ which enables the operation to be arranged in the most optimal and effective way.
JB: What else have you been doing differently this year?
CB: Over the past year or so some of our focus has been on optimising the automation that we already have in the business. This has involved working closely with Beumer, optimising the settings of the machines and also developing a new sortation algorithm. This has yielded significant improvements in our Hub Capacity and during peak we saw individual sorters do over 20,000 parcels per hour – up from around 18,500. As a result, our hub at Rugby can now process over 1.3m parcels per day and Warrington can process over 0.85m parcels per day.
We also added 13 new manual lines for peak 2020 that have enabled Hermes to handle more of the ‘Handle with Care’ items such as Beer and Wine. Although we refer to these as ‘manual’, 10 of the lines are fitted with the latest in scanning and dimensioning technology (EXPD). These Datalogic cameras have world class read rates and the result has been much higher hub scanning compliance.
We have also changed the way we report and monitor and have introduced an OEE report (Overall Equipment Effectiveness). This approach is commonly used in manufacturing and provided live data showing the performance, quality and availability metrics of our automated kit. This is now live in both the Rugby and Warrington hubs and has helped improve our efficiency.
JB: Finally, what are your future plans?
CB: Looking forward we will be looking to increase the automation in our depot network which has traditionally been relatively manual. A significant amount of work has been carried out to optimise the way that we operate our current depots (using Lean Manufacturing techniques), but moving forward we will be looking to automate the majority of the depot sortation process. Last year, we upgraded 15 of our depots with the new conveyors (our x-belt) in order to meet the increased volumes and additional systems are now planned in 2021. In addition, we also plan to install a dedicated van belt at the Warrington Hub this year which will allow us to unload vans and provide an additional 100,000 parcel capacity per day at Warrington.
We are also seeing a massive growth in small package traffic from places like China and we are looking at an automation solution to support that. Other priorities for me and the team include our new 339,827 sq ft hub in Barnsley which will start operating next year that will be capable of process over 2m parcels per day.