When you implement mobile robots to speed up picking for e-commerce fulfillment, your packaging has to keep up. A synchronized, automated approach across picking and packing is something that iForce, a third-party logistics (3PL) company, wanted to achieve at its fulfillment center in Rugby, United Kingdom. The facility fulfills orders for one of iForce’s clients, The Works, a leading retailer of toys and stationery.
By selecting and deploying an automated packaging solution (Sparck Technologies), iForce found it had the packaging speed and reliability to keep up with its revamped pick processes upstream, and also was able to apply autoboxing technology. That technology allows iForce to produce right-sized cartons that appeal to e-commerce customers who want a tidy, pleasant unboxing experience.
Customer service is central to iForce’s approach: Efficient fulfillment of online orders along with prompt delivery of well-packaged items is essential for winning repeat sales. However, with the industry-wide scarcity of warehouse labor and rising labor costs, meeting fulfillment goals during peak volumes was a challenge. To address these issues, iForce embarked on a business-wide initiative to develop a strategy for investment in advanced warehouse automation, and The Works was fully involved and supportive of the move.
The strategy had three elements: robotic goods-to-person order picking; robot-assisted picking; and automated packaging systems. However, it was absolutely critical that all three worked in perfect synchronization. There was also the recognition that an automated packaging solution with autoboxing technology built into the automation could help the unboxing experience for end customers, while reducing the labor requirement and meeting throughput goals.
“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,” says Neil Lavercombe, business planning manager at iForce.
With the decision made, installation of a dual infeed CVP Impack machine took place at iForce’s Rugby warehouse in June 2022, in time for The Work’s busy autumn peak season. The dual operator infeed for the machine facilitates a continuous flow of orders, from order-totes arriving at the machine for induction to complete perfectly sized packages, weighed and labeled, ready for dispatch.
Speed, throughput and reliability are core attributes of the fit-to-size autoboxing technology, an important capability given that at peak The Works will see around 70% of its e-commerce parcels created automatically. That requires the packaging automation to accommodate changing order profiles while right-sizing around a range of different line items.
“Order profiles, in terms of items per order together with the physical size of orders, can vary throughout the year, ranging from a typical e-commerce profile of one or two items per order to 10+ items per order,” Lavercombe says. “The CVP Impack simply produces the right sized packaging for whatever orders we have.”
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 corrugate 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. 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.”