A third-party logistics provider specializing in consumer electronics products formerly needed 12 to 16 people per day to run one of its shipping lines. Some of those employees used laser-based scanners to manually scan barcodes and SKUs, while others applied shipping manifest labels. Additional people performed a cross-verification check after the labels were applied. The company’s management wanted to automate that line to reduce its labor costs, while also speeding throughput. They wanted the automated line to be able to handle 2D barcodes as well as barcodes placed in varying orientations.

A new line automates the dispensing, scanning, label application, and cross-verification functions. The scanning and cross-verification stations are equipped with image-based barcode readers. These devices have a read rate of over 99.5% and position the company for changing business needs into the future since readers are 2D code capable and able to read barcodes in any orientation. The automation of that line reduced the head count to two to three people while increasing throughput by 360 cases per hour. With cost savings of approximately $150,000 per year, the automation paid for itself in six months.

Labor-Intensive Solution

The third-party logistics provider operates a 600,000-square foot facility from which it ships up to 35,000 products per day to consumers and another 2,500 to 5,000 products per day to stores. The line that previously required up to 16 employees handles between 6,000 and 15,000 shipments to consumers daily.

In the original design of that line, employees used hand-held laser-based scanners to capture barcode data. At the first scanning station, one person captured two codes – a serialized code and a SKU code – on the front face of each box. The data was sent to a warehouse management system that assigned the box to the next order in the queue. That order’s shipping manifest label was then printed and applied manually (to the top side of the box with the label wrapped onto the side of the cartons as well). At the next scanning station, a person scanned the two codes on the front face of the box again as well as the shipping manifest label on the side. This was a cross-verification step to make sure the shipping label corresponded to the correct item. If everything matched up, the box continued down the line.

Automation Based on Image-Based Barcode Readers

The company brought in StreamTech Engineering, a logistics systems integrator based in St. Louis, Missouri, to automate the shipping line. “They provided us with their design criteria, which included automatic dispensing, scanning, print & apply, automatic cross verification of labels, and a QC auto reject station,” explains Bob Miller, an engineer with StreamTech. Another aspect of the project involved automating the way the boxes were fed onto the conveyor belt. At the time each box was being pulled out of a carton and individually placed onto the belt.

Another important requirement for the project was that the new, automated line would be adaptable to future changes, such as the use of 2D barcodes. Also, as the company took on additional customers, management was expecting to get barcodes in ladder orientations rather than just the picket fence orientation they were seeing at the time. While this would not be an issue for hand-held scanners, it was necessary to make sure automated readers could capture codes in any orientation.

StreamTech was concerned about the ability of laser-based scanners to consistently read the labels on the packages due to potential changes in label position, SKU orientation, and code type. They also felt their inability to read 2D codes or barcodes in various orientations would not address the customer’s concerns about unknown future needs. So he decided to go with image-based readers. These readers capture an image and use a series of algorithms to process it and make it easier to read. An algorithm searches the entire image for the code and identifies the position and orientation of the code for easy reading. Other algorithms handle degradations in code quality due to differences in material types and surfaces. “The image-based readers give us omni-directional reading capability, so they can handle picket fence and ladder orientation and anything in between even if it’s skewed,” explained Miller.

Image-based readers offered the advantage of high throughput even when labels are damaged, and regardless of where they appear on the box or how they are oriented. This is due to their use of a new algorithm, which handles difficult barcode-reading applications on high-speed lines. The algorithm uses texture to locate barcodes at any orientation and then extracts high-resolution 1D signals for decoding. The finder analyzes a raw source image and produces a list of regions where it is likely that an ID code exists along with the orientation and other properties of the code. The algorithm then extracts 1D signal using as a mathematical foundation a model of the pixel grid itself that reduces blur while maintaining perfect accuracy and noise reduction.

Better Throughput Now and Future Flexibility

The new, automated line begins with a custom dispenser designed by StreamTech that holds 60 individual product cartons. The dispenser pneumatically fires the boxes onto the conveyor belt.

At the first scanning station, one image-based reader reads the two 1D codes on the front face of the carton. Next, two printer engines print and apply the shipping labels to the cartons. After that comes the cross-verification check station. Although an image-based reader can read in two planes, StreamTech decided that there were enough idiosyncrasies about the way the boxes and barcodes arrived at the cross-verification station that he dedicated two image-based readers to this station. One reads the front face of the carton and the other reads the shipping label barcode on the side.

The read rate has consistently been 99.5% and 99.8%, a rate that the company finds very satisfactory. They also have confidence that the line is well positioned for the future. “The image-based readers are capable of reading 2D codes, as well” Miller said. “The software has settings to accept or filter multiple 1D and 2D symbologies.”

The new automated line has increased throughput from 2,400 cases per hour to 2,760 cases per hour. Yet the entire operation now requires only two or three people, who load the dispenser system, palletize the finished products, and tend the line (filling the printers with label stock, handling exceptions, and etc.). The estimated cost savings from the labor reduction generated a fast ROI. In addition to having a line that runs faster at a lower cost, this customer has a line that should serve it well for many years to come.

Matt Angstadt is Product Marketing Specialist, ID Products – Logistics, Cognex Corporation.