Challenges in finding available labour, combined with rising costs, prompted logistics service provider, iForce, and their client, The Works, to re-think their approach to achieving peak for the leading toys and stationery retailer. Ensuring reliable fulfilment would require a commitment to advanced automation including state-of-the-art, right-size packaging technology from Sparck.
Established in 1981, The Works has grown to become the go-to multi-channel value retailer for reading, learning, creativity and play, with 525 shops in the UK & Ireland and an online store visited by over 41.5 million customers a year.
Customer service is of prime importance to the business – efficient fulfilment of online orders, along with prompt delivery of well packaged items is essential for winning repeat sales. However, with the industry wide scarcity of suitable labour, and the inevitable rises in labour costs, delivering increasing peak volumes was becoming ever more challenging.
To address these issues, in 2020 iForce embarked on a business-wide initiative to develop a strategy for investment into advanced warehouse automation, and as a key client The Works was fully involved and supportive of the move.
Neil Lavercombe, Business Planning Manager at iForce, responsible for ecommerce development, explains: “Like every business in the industry labour was becoming increasingly difficult to find and more expensive, and that put at risk our ability to deliver peak for our clients. So, we decided to develop a strategy around automation, based on lowering our dependency on labour, particularly at peak, therefore de-risking our ability to deliver.”
There were three elements to the strategy: robotic goods-to-person order picking, robot assisted picking and automated packaging systems. However, it was absolutely critical that all three should work in perfect synchronisation with each other.
The Works was a prime candidate for robot-assisted picking linked to an automated packing machine. Lavercombe points out: “When it came to evaluating the different packing solutions on the market, we quickly determined that the principle of auto fit-to-size packaging had big advantages over the traditional box-closer systems, and the supplier that really stood out was Sparck Technologies with their CVP Impack machine.”
The CVP Impack measures, constructs, tapes, weighs and labels each parcel in just a matter of seconds. The operator simply places the item(s) to be packed onto the machine and scans the order. The system identifies the order and automatically conveys the items to a 3D scanner to measure and calculate the minimum box size required. The cardboard is then cut and folded to create a snug fit around the goods and tape is applied on just two sides to secure the box. Then an in-line scale checks the weight against the order and, finally, the box is automatically conveyed to a label printer where a carrier compliant label is created and applied.
The decision made, installation of a dual feed CVP Impack machine took place at iForce’s Rugby warehouse in June 2022, well in time for The Work’s busy autumn peak season. The dual operator feed facilitates a seamless and continuous flow of orders, from order-totes arriving at the machine, to complete, perfectly sized packages, weighed and labelled, ready for despatch.
Speed, throughput and reliability are core attributes of Sparck’s fit-to-size auto-boxing technology, an important capability given that at peak The Works will see around 70% of their ecommerce parcels created automatically by the CVP Impack.
Typical ecom challenges around very changeable order profiles at peak, multi-item orders and SKU variance play to the strengths of the CVP Impack and the inherent flexibility of Sparck’s fit-to-size technology. According to Lavercombe: “Order profiles, in terms of items per order together with the physical size of orders, can vary throughout the year, ranging from a typical ecom profile of one or two items per order to 10+ items per order. The CVP Impack simply produces the right sized packaging for whatever orders we have, a far simpler and less complex process than using traditional fixed size cartons, with the added advantage that void fill is completely eliminated.” As a consequence, significant savings in material costs have been achieved.
Sparck Technologies’ latest CVP machines now offer the possibility to select up to three input feeds, each with a different width of cardboard, which allows the machine to automatically select the most appropriate board size – saving on material waste.
There are important benefits for the customer too. By creating custom sized packaging for each order, the customer receives a compact, right-sized box, which is more convenient to carry, eliminates ‘consumer distress’ over wasteful packaging and delivers a positive environmental message. A further advantage of the fit-to-size cardboard packaging is a snug fit to the product, which prevents items moving around, providing better protection without the need for bubble-wrap or void-fill.
“We wanted to keep things very simple,” says Lavercombe. “The packaging machine had to integrate with both our existing manual processes and our new robotic systems – once again the simple approach of the Sparck machine worked for us. It seemed designed from the bottom up to do the job, rather than an adapted system. For example, a great feature is the way components needed for day-to-day maintenance are readily available and a drawer system offers easy access – well thought out design, from day one.
“Also, if we have issues with the machine at any time, Sparck engineers can remotely access cameras mounted on the machine and give us guidance. These are advantages well in advance of the market,” he says.
So, how is the machine performing? “Feedback from the Rugby site has been really excellent,” says Lavercombe. “Basically, the machine does exactly what Sparck said it would do and, importantly, what we needed it to do. On the rare occasion there has been an issue, the speed of response, the information provided, and the way Sparck has handled the situation has been really, really good. If an engineer was needed on site, they arrived very quickly.”
He adds: “Installation too went exceptionally smoothly. The machine arrived on Monday morning and there were boxes coming off the line the following Friday. It was fully operational within two weeks.”
Summing up, Lavercombe says: “Sparck is supporting us all the way. It truly feels like a partnership rather than a customer – supplier relationship.”