SICK Image-Based Code Readers Support Asda’s Automated Parcel Sorting Hub

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Auto-identification technology from SICK has solved a challenging parcel label reading application at Asda’s pioneering robotic sorting facility in Yorkshire. The digitalised solution helps to optimise efficiency by enabling operators to track a wealth of data right down to the level of individual parcels.

The innovative parcel handling facility is the hub for Asda’s ‘toyou’ third-party collection and returns service. It deploys 60 Geek+ Automated Mobile Robots (AMRs) and a digital sorting concept with the flexibility needed to respond to rapid changes in both forward and reverse volumes.

This unique parcel sorting solution is a perfect example of Industry 4.0 logistics in action, with the inbuilt versatility to adapt to changes in day-to-day volumes. The facility, which went live in November 2020, was constructed to fit within the existing footprint of the Asda Logistics Services (ALS) distribution centre at South Elmsall in West Yorkshire, where Asda colleagues work alongside robots successfully.

Innovative Facility

toyou provides parcel collection and return services for customers at more than 600 Asda stores across the UK from popular online retailers. The service offers an environmentally-friendly solution that leverages the ALS logistics network and utilises food distribution vehicles. The third-party logistics facility has doubled in capacity in response to growing demand for online shopping, serving a roster of more than 140 online big brand retail clients.

Despite the industry challenges of the past few years, this unique facility was delivered in under 12 months in a partnership between ALS and integrator AMH Material Handling. AMH chose to partner with SICK to integrate the auto-identification solution using its Lector 652 image-based code readers that could reliably achieve high read rates, despite difficult and hard to read codes.

AMH Material Handling engaged with the Asda toyou team from the start of the project. It was quickly established that a bespoke solution was required and the AMH, ALS and Geek+ teams workshopped ideas together. A close and productive working partnership was the foundation for a groundbreaking solution.

Reliable Barcode Reading

By digitalising the sorting operation using Geek+ AMRs, AMH aimed to achieve 99.9% sorting accuracy. Configuring the solution to meet Asda’s needs had to begin with reliable identification of thousands of parcels an hour.

Each parcel is placed by an Asda colleague on one of four conveyor infeeds which travel up to meet the robots operating on the one metre-high platform. Two SICK Lector 652 image-based code readers are positioned in a specially designed framework at the top of each conveyor. The SICK cameras read the barcode before the parcel transfers to a waiting robot. The robots then navigate using a grid of 2D codes to reach one of 34 different exit chutes positioned along each side of the platform.

Reliable reading of parcel barcode labels was one of the project’s major aims. SICK image-based code readers were specified for reliable capture of the barcode data that identifies the parcel and tells the robot which chute to navigate to.

Adam Mydlowski, General Manager of the Asda Yorkshire Cross-Dock Centre, explains: “Parcels arrive in many shapes and sizes, so accurate reading of the label is really important for us, and labels can be placed anywhere on the parcel.

“With this in mind, we knew it would be challenging to create a solution that could accurately read the labels, but through working with AMH, SICK and Geek+, we were able to arrive at a highly efficient solution.”

The SICK Lector 652 image-based code readers can reliably read the barcode labels on the wide variety of irregular shaped parcels being sorted, no matter what their size, height or orientation. They read the labels accurately even in the case of poor-quality print or low contrast, or if they are creased, crinkled or damaged.

Pre-validation and Testing

“We specified SICK cameras because we knew they would be robust and reliable,” explains Barry Pemberton, Solutions Director with AMH. “SICK was able to pre-validate the solution for us by testing with real labels and irregular parcel shapes and heights, so we knew the cameras were going to do what we needed them to do.

“It was important to choose an auto-ident partner who would undertake the task in its entirety and deliver high read rates. SICK rose to the challenge.”

SICK Lector 650 image-based code readers have a wide-angle lens and 2 megapixel resolution. Combined with advanced on-board image-processing technology, they achieve exceptionally high read performance, even with poorly printed or partially-destroyed codes, or where multiple codes are presented in a single image. The Lector’s dynamic focus was ideal for reading labels at irregular orientations and heights.

Data from the Lectors is processed via the logic unit of a SICK MSC800 modular system controller, enabling the data to be integrated easily into AMH’s custom-designed software and systems.

“The SICK Lector cameras’ capability to read the parcels reliably, in any orientation or location on the parcel, was essential to the operation,” Pemberton continues. “We could also be confident that SICK would support the order through to full installation and commissioning. The installation of the cameras has been seamless.”

Operating Flexibility

Triggered by reliable sensor identification, the flexibility of the robot sorting system enables the operation to be adapted to suit the varying volumes of the third-party clients. While several chutes may be dedicated to any one client when volumes are high, less frequent volumes can be cross sorted by operators from a single outfeed. The operation can also adapt to the service levels for parcel returns depending on the client’s needs or requirements.

“With the AMR solution we have 34 chutes, so we can get a much better spread of product to enable the system to run for longer,” Mydlowski says. Both solutions can now run together, providing a constant operation and enabling increased capacities.

The data has been crucial in getting the best out of the automated sorting solution. A requirement of the read is an input into the IDC warehouse management system and each individual scanner can be interrogated.

“Every barcode is recorded via the warehouse control system, so we can interrogate each individual scanner, and go through every barcode,” explains Mydlowski.  He continues: “We can take a full download of that and search for a particular order. We can fully track the system to find out if a parcel is scanned, or if it has not been scanned at all.

“Once we begin to fully utilise the data that is collected, it becomes powerful. Good reads, no reads, throughput error messages and downtime – that’s all useful information.

“For example, if there is a particular infeed that keeps stopping, I can investigate to see if the problem lies with the scanner, belt, operator or the barcode, that is helping us to get the most out of the whole operation. We have been able to really deep dive to achieve continuous improvements.”

The AMR sorting facility was designed to handle increased volume, but it has also delivered many other benefits. By installing a metre-high platform and adding automated barcode reading, the project team made the sorting facility much more ergonomic and safer for Asda colleagues to work alongside the robots. There is no need for them to climb steps, or to have to bend down frequently to pick parcels. This is a step-change from previous AMR sorting systems that have relied on the operator placing a parcel directly on the robot platform.

 Rotation and Flexibility

Each of the four infeeds runs independently of each other, delivering good rotation and flexibility to operate with fewer conveyors. “There are fewer single points of failure,” Mydlowski says. “The cages can be brought straight to the sorter, so there’s no additional material handling. Asda colleagues also find it much more interesting to interact and troubleshoot working alongside the robots.”

AMH worked closely with the Asda project team to perfect a bespoke chute design, which uses flexible netting to catch parcels at the outfeeds. Each chute is equipped with two SICK Powerprox photoelectric sensors to monitor parcel fill levels, linked to a visible light stack to alert operators to when a chute is full. The chutes can be stowed under the mezzanine, so that large cardboard palletainers can be moved directly under the outfeeds when the sorter is handling volumes to a single destination.

A SICK DeTem safety light curtain with a SICK Flexi Soft controller guards the entrance to a maintenance gate where robots can be easily removed for inspection or repair. SICK safety relay switches are also fitted to the entrance gates of the robot facility.

Versatile Solution

The versatility of the ASDA robot facility is enabling it to adapt and expand to meet changing business conditions. Once the parcels are correctly identified, robot routes can be planned from anywhere on the grid. This means the system can be easily adapted or expanded in future, whatever the commercial challenge may be.

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