Client Overview

WH Smith is a well known name on our high street but also has numerous other outlets for its book and stationary products, including airports, railway stations and other public places. Founded in 1792, WH Smith intends to build on their position as the UK’s most popular bookseller and has engaged with Conveyor Networks to help with their automation needs.

The brief

This project requirement was the efficient processing of Book returns at the  WH Smith Central Hub. returned books from all outlet types are brought to the centre with a view to being processed for return to original suppliers or to be destroyed.

The key challenge was that on receipt of product the system would be able to reconcile the returns product data with the management information received back from the stores or outlets and the Global database and to report on any discrepencies. The existing process involved lots of manual systems and manual sorting of product.

WH Smith recognised that this was not efficient and wanted to consolidate the process so that suppliers would receive efficiently packed products, either in single SKU format or mixed pallet loads, other products being despatched for destruction.

WH Smith turned to Conveyor Networks to design and implement a bespoke solution that made cost savings and ensured maximum efficiency. The project needed to be fast track so that it was operational for the peak returns time which followed the busy Christmas period, the busiest time of year for WH Smith.

How Conveyor Networks tackled the project

As experts in the design and implementation of smart conveyor and software system solutions, Conveyor Networks looked at all aspects of the existing processes to establish any areas that could be improved. They spent time with the WH Smith Project team to understand how they wanted the system to work and fully developed the requirement in partnership over many meetings with the client.

As with any client project, Conveyor Networks scoped out a design and provided a comprehensive offer. On receipt of the order, they put together a detailed functional design specification and project plan, together with a full comms and test specification. They also liaised with other suppliers involved in the project. Key to the delivery was the Eurosort Sortation machine and the Transnorm belt conveyors.

First, they looked at how the product would be presented to the operators and how data was presented from the existing I.T system as well as how the physical packing took place. They then set about writing the software solution, designing the hardware and procuring the right conveyors.  Once installed the system underwent rigorous testing and commissioning procedures to ensure it worked to specification.

The solution

Conveyor Networks installed a high speed sorting system, using split tray technology and able to operate in excess of 12,000 trays per hour, it was configured with over 100 exit chutes, these chutes were themselves individual conveyors that present the sorted product to the pack operator.

The product is automatically inducted to the machine with synchronous belt conveyors which drop the product in the centre of the tray – a key element in handling books as they need to fall flat when sorted, to avoid damage.

They also installed their ‘Interface Manager’ software, this flexible suite of software modules ensures all field based equipment and high level ERP or WMS software systems can communicate through a single point of contact and a common language interface. This enables maximum efficiency and simplicity. A cardboard pack for the parcels was to be used and a licence plate bar code introduced to enable better order Identification. The design incorporated new packing worktops which were developed and modelled for the operators as well as the integration of all the appropriate conveyors, packaging machines, sortation machines and complex control systems.

The system now works by sorting returns products at high speed into packing groups -single, mixed or destruction and moving these batches of products to the packing point with all details of the customer order information being retained within Interface Manager. The pack area is equipped with a hand held scanners so the operator scans the chute and the licence plate on the carton to match address details for later auto application.

The induct point is also configured with scanners roller conveyors and colour touch screen monitors which gives superb visual feedback via the Interface Manager software. The operator collates the returns orders – where product is contained within plastic skips and begins to scan the contents of the skip.

Each product is scanned to the system and can then be reconciled as “received”, the books are then synchronised with the sorting system and sorted to their destination chutes.

The project also included for weigh scales, Camera recognition systems and product volumetric capture.

The end result

• Multiple product categories can now be sorted to appropriate exit routes. This has resulted in significant efficiency savings and a reduction in labour.

• Single SKU returns can be efficiently packed and labelled.

• Various management/reconciliation reports are now available based on real sort data.

• Conveyor Networks continue to provide 24 / 7 support for the system.

WH Smith feedback

Jim McCafferty, General Manager, “Conveyor Networks provided us with an intelligent solution to our returns process. Not only has it helped to reduce our costs, it’s also made us significantly more efficient as a business.”

Conveyor Networks

Tel: 01925 757543


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