How automation is done: A spectacular transformation in the UK

Do you want to learn how a relatively old school and conventional logistics company changed their main distribution centre into a highly efficient and future proofed hub operation? In this article, we take you behind the scenes and show you the amazing automated transformation of UK Mail. 

From time to time, even companies that dominate an entire industry need to change their gameplan. It is the only way to stay on top.

UK Mail recognised that. For the British logistics giant changing their gameplan meant adopting a new approach to distribution centres. A new generation of distribution centre technology was needed. 

For many years, the company has been a household name in UK logistics. But with e-commerce providing a dramatically rising number of parcels to be processed on a daily basis, UK Mail had to reinvent its tactics.  

Today, UK Mail can show off a fully automated distribution hub, designed for future prosperity in an age of roaring e-commerce. In a hyper-competitive landscape, where next-day delivery is not just a luxury but a vital capacity, odd-sized parcels pop up everywhere and an increasing number of extremely busy shopping holidays set the tone online, it takes an extraordinary operation to process the enormous variety of parcel scenarios that distribution centres have to deal with.

UK Mail didn’t just need a new machine. They needed a new system. So they decided to go with automation. In this article, you can learn the fascinating story behind how they did it. 

The ideal location 

For UK Mail, reinventing its main hub and turning it into a future-proof operation wasn’t just a matter of technology. It was an actual physical journey as well.

Before diving into the more complicated aspects of automation, UK Mail had to reestablish its national hub in Ryton-on-Dunsmore near Coventry. The previous location was in Birmingham. 

As the company’s main hub, the new address needed to represent the ideal location in terms of shipping parcels to all the regional centres. That was just the first step, however. Identifying the perfect system was of equal importance. 

That was exactly what the UK Mail did. 

Loop-sorter-based-sortation-system

The system 

The new system needed the capacity to complete a number of objectives. It had to be able to handle parcels from a wide range of shapes and sizes. 

What the company did was adopting a single sorter, with the capacity to handle everything from a jiffy bag to parcels weighing up to 49 kg and reaching up to 1,395m in length. By allowing a high percentage of parcels to go through their new automated sorting system, UK Mail improved its operational efficiency tremendously. 

UK Mail was also aiming for more speed. The company wanted to achieve faster processing of incoming parcels. A fine-tuned control system and a one-stop concept for unloading and loading trails got the job done. 

A key feature for any main hub in CEP logistics: Achieve fast shipment to the various regional centres. This was achieved through a high number of loose loads, combined with fewer cages and pallets. Also the ability to unload all incoming parcels from a trailer into a single dock significantly reduced the number of shunt movements, resulting in faster processing and lower operational costs.

Combining a fully automated sortation system and more streamlined unloading produced the desired result: An extended cut-off time for accep­ting parcels into the main hub for next-day delivery. 

A key parameter in today’s competitive market that allows UK Mail’s customers to offer their e-commerce customers a later cut-off time. 

Built around automation

In the new automated parcel handling system, inbound parcels are discharged from trucks into the hub using boom conveyors. The parcels are manually singulated; standard items are accepted into the sortation system, and out-of-size and out-of-weight items are automatically discharged for manual handling.

CEP-company-automated-sortation

The hub features four inbound conveyor sec­tions that feed five inductions for each of the two sorters. The sortation system is designed as a two-tier configuration, with the lower, hammer­-head style sorter being used to sort parcels for delivery to the local Coventry postal area. If a parcel for a Coventry destination enters the hub via the upper sorter, it is automatically discharged to a conveyor and fed to the lower sorter to be taken to the chutes for other destinations. 

Read more: "Automated parcel sorting – an introductory guide."

The idea of automation is present in every part of the system. What it all means is that UK Mail has taken its top-notch quality and service and combined it with some of the newest and most efficient distribution centre technology. 

The outcome is a much strengthened position in the market. Both for today and in the future. 

Summary

What the company achieved

  • Increased distribution hub capacity based on swapping conveyor-based to loop sorter-based sortation
  • Guaranteed a fast and flexible response to future demands from increasing e-commerce
  • Increased ability to handle parcels of all shapes and sizes
  • An integrated yard management and hub control system for unloading and loading trailers

How they achieved it

  • System design built around automation that allows UK Mail to extend its cut-off time for accepting parcels into its hub for next-day delivery
  • New sortation technology to achieve a fast and more flexible process, which also contributes to the use of fewer trucks and an overall return on investment
  • Integrated control system optimises the parcel flow to reduce operational costs and help increase the efficiency of the overall hub operation
  • An integrated yard management and hub control system for unloading and loading trailers

The specs 

  •  187,000 ft2 (17,400m2) hub
  •  17,000 ft² (1,600m2) offices
  •  34,500 ft2 (3,200m2) local depot
  •  Parking for over 130 tractor/trailer combinations
  •  20,000 parcels per hour sortation capacity
  •  24 in-feed boom conveyors
  •  72 out-feed boom conveyors
  •  28 local depot chutes
  •  30 cross-dock doors
  • UK Mail’s yard management is integrated with the sorting system’s SCADA overview, to optimise trailer and shunt movements. UK Mail takes particular care to optimise these movements to mini­mise empty infeed sections. On the floor, ­process managers use the BEUMER Group software suite statistics program, CIS, as well as the SCADA overview, to generate updates on operational performance.
  • Handles a wide range
  • of parcel shapes/sizes
  • Size Minimum Maximum 
  • Length 155 mm 1,395 mm 
  • Width 105 mm 800 mm 
  • Height 10 mm 700 mm 
  • Weight 100 g 50 kg

Download the case collection: Automation solutions for CEP hubs and distribution centres

Download the case collection: "Automation solutions for CEP hubs and distribution centres."

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