Materials on Hand | Materials Handling

Automated systems are helping libraries move staff to patron-facing work, while manufacturers innovate new design features.

Automated systems are helping libraries move staff to patron-facing work, while manufacturers innovate new design features

In 1999, Minnesota’s Hennepin County Library (HCL) “was looking for ways to utilize technology to [improve] staff health and safety with better ergonomics and to streamline circulation processes, which…all improves patron service,” says Ann Woodson-Hicks, senior administrative manager, Hennepin County, Library Capital Projects.

Like any high-volume library system, significant staff hours were spent managing returns, checking items in, and getting everything back on the shelves or directed to the next patron on a holds list. Automated materials handling (AMH) systems were still new to the library market, but HCL became one of the first adopters of the technology, installing a Tech Logic UltraSort almost two decades ago.

“There’s so much handling of materials behind the scenes. If you can streamline any part of that process, you can create new efficiencies,” she says.

By automatically identifying returned materials via barcode or radio-frequency identification (RFID) tag, checking these items into an integrated library system (ILS) and then conveying the items to a sorting system that separates materials into related bins, AMH systems significantly reduce the amount of time that staff spend working with returns.

While concerns have been raised that this would result in layoffs, none of the library officials interviewed for this article said that the installation of an AMH system had led to the elimination of staff positions or the reduction of work hours. Instead, they all described AMH systems as a capital investment that has enabled their libraries to prioritize public-facing work over back-office tasks, adapting to growth and new trends, even as operating/staffing budgets have remained flat.

Speeding up these processes also has a direct impact on circulation—maximizing the investment in material. Return to shelf (RTS) time for returned materials averages about three to six days for libraries without sorters, compared with 24 hours with a sorting system, notes Eric Meyer, COO of Tech Logic. Generally, the smaller the library, the quicker the turnaround, but he added that Tech Logic has worked with large library systems that were dealing with RTS times of three to six weeks prior to installing a central sorter.

Emmett Erwin, national sales manager for P.V. Supa, agrees. “Without sorters, I’ve seen places where it takes a week or two weeks to get items back onto shelves,” he says. “During that time, you have all of the materials that have been dropped off in book returns in different areas, waiting to get checked in.”

Since nonautomated return processes require repetitive manual labor, particularly in high-volume locations, AMH systems also provide an ergonomic benefit to staff as well.

EARLY ADOPTER Hennepin County, MN, was one of the first libraries in the United States
to implement AMH equipment, in 1999. This 46-bin Tech Logic UltraSort unit facilitates returns
at the library’s Ridgedale branch

Shifting priorities

“Nowadays, staff are being asked to do so much more,” says Holly Barfield, assistant director, IT, Forsyth County Public Library (FCPL), GA. Libraries “are always taking on additional tasks without hiring more staff.”

Checking out more than a million items annually, the Sharon Forks branch of FCPL is the highest circulating branch location in the state, according to the Georgia Public Library Service. FCPL’s Post Road and Cumming branches are also in the top six for circulation. To help manage the volume, the Post Road location had a nine-bin bibliotheca sorter installed when the location opened in 2013, and the Sharon Forks branch added a nine-bin system later that year. Cumming received a seven-bin bibliotheca flex AMH ­system with its new ­bulkSeparator feature in August 2017. As part of a renovation, Sharon Forks upgraded to two of the new systems in March.

“When you’re handling that many materials…you’ve got to have a way to manage it,” Barfield says.

Processing new materials and retrieving, sorting, and reshelving returns “are a lot of the tedious things that we do as a library,” says John Blyberg, assistant director, the Darien Library, CT, and a 2006 LJ Mover & Shaker. “If you can automate that, then you can take precious staff time and…have more people in public-facing ­positions.”

During the construction of its new location, which opened in 2009, Darien installed a customized system designed by Lyngsoe. As Blyberg explains, the library was preparing to work in a much larger facility—anticipating increased visits as well as potentially growing circulation—without adding staff. When the 54,000 square foot location opened, he notes that it “more than doubled our size.... But our staffing levels were going to remain the same. We weren’t get[ting] any additional funding from the town for more employees. So we needed to think creatively about how to be more efficient.”

The RFID-based system features three returns for the public—two in the library vestibule and one drive-up return—and uses a two-story conveyance system to feed into a central sorter. In addition to implementing an RFID system during the transition to the new building, Blyberg says that the library also began working with Baker & Taylor (B&T) to order materials with preprogrammed RFID tags.

In 2009, aiming specifically to expand branch hours while maintaining current staffing levels, the Toronto Public Library (TPL) launched a capital project to install RFID self-checkout in its 35 busiest locations. As part of that program, a request for proposal (RFP) process was also initiated for branch sorters, according to Susan Martin, manager, branch capital planning and implementation for TPL. P.V. Supa won the bid, and, in 2010, a nine-bin P.V. Supa unit was deployed at TPL’s recently renovated Cedarbrae branch in a pilot test.

The following year, TPL conducted an end-to-end examination of its circulation processes using the “Lean Six Sigma” methodology. Ultimately, TPL determined “that a centralized sorter could accomplish a great number of efficiencies, including eliminating a backlog of materials waiting to be hand sorted at the shipping hub, reduction in travel time for delivery (from up to seven days down to 24 hours), and significant space- and timesaving in the public service areas,” Martin says.

In 2012, a separate RFP was issued for a central sorter to be installed at TPL’s Ellesmere facility. P.V. Supa was again the successful proponent, and following a design process in 2013, installation began at Ellesmere in the summer of 2014. Last summer, TPL installed a P.V. Supa Smart Shelf—an RFID-enabled shelf that processes patron-returned items—at its Runny­mede branch. In January, the library’s North York Central branch system was upgraded with agile shelves and smart carts.

The Seattle Public Library was an early adopter of AMH, installing an RFID-enabled Tech Logic UltraSort system in its Central Library branch, which opened in 2004. It features a customized conveyance system that transports materials from four interior and exterior book returns to a main sorting room, then into bins destined for branches, or carts for materials that will stay in the building. Like Darien, SPL was growing but without the benefit of adding staff.

“When we were designing the new central library, we identified AMHS technology as a solution for…materials that would increase efficiency of processing and also reduce the number of staff hours spent handling and processing materials,” explains Andrew ­Harbison, assistant director, collections and access for SPL. “There were a lot of operational benefits from the logistics side as well as the staffing side.”

SEE IT TO BELIEVE IT Kids are fascinated by publicly viewing sorting
and conveyance systems, such as this P.V. Supa sorter at Toronto Public Library’s Don Mills branch

Pro tips

Noting that AMH systems “touch every single thing that you do in the library,” Blyberg advised libraries considering a system to make a comprehensive evaluation of current work flows.

“I think you want to start by looking at your whole process—what happens to books when they come into the library and go out,” he said. “Because it’s not just a system that you can buy the hardware and stick it in place and have it magically make things easier…. You want to approach it from all angles. Look at how you’re ordering books. Look at what the traffic patterns are in the library. Look at how books are being processed. Consider doing preprocessed books and materials. Things like that, so that you can take advantage of streamlining those processes.”

Harbison agrees, adding that systems with multiple branches should develop a “strong understanding of how the work flow would be redesigned both at the centralized level [and] the branch level, [which necessitates] involving a lot of different stakeholders and departments in the assessment and planning stages.”

In addition, Harbison notes, while the AMH system was incorporated into the design of SPL’s central branch, in some instances the building’s design did not account for maintenance and repair of portions of the conveyance system—something he advises libraries to take into account when planning similar installations.

“Even though it was designed specifically for the building, certain parts of the system are in very narrow, hard-to-reach spaces,” Harbison says. “And that’s something that I point out to library people who are designing these systems or thinking about designing these systems. You have to build in access to the equipment in order to repair and maintain it effectively. That’s something we didn’t fully realize.”

Lori Bowen Ayre, founder of the Galecia Group consultancy, suggests that libraries begin by establishing their priorities for an AMH system. When advising clients, “the first thing I want to do is find out…their top priority. For example, the library that is getting a ton of returns through a drive-up book drop, and they want to somehow make that work in combination with an [AMH] system, is a very different problem from a library that…wants to eliminate their service desk” and have patrons return items exclusively through AMH drops. “The first thing to figure out is what’s working well, what’s not working well, and where do you want the technology to help.... Being clear on exactly what you are trying to achieve is important.”

Several experts suggested visiting a working system. “If they can at all, they should visit a library system that is operating an AMH, so they can understand how the system actually works,” Woodson-Hicks says.

Martin agrees. After completing an RFP process or otherwise deciding on a vendor, “go and see your prospective sorter in action,” she says. “Talk to the people who use it, and touch and listen to it for yourself.”

Also important, if a library is planning to install sorters at more than one branch, establish a clear criteria for which branches will receive them and why, she suggests, because “everyone will want one.” For example, based on the results of the Cedarbrae pilot, TPL determined that locations processing more than 400,000 check-ins annually would be candidates for branch sorters.

When “it is a capital building project and a new build, work with your consultant as early as possible in the design process,” Martin suggests. “Retrofitting existing spaces is a lot more challenging.”

Barfield suggests that even when systems aren’t added as part of a renovation, libraries should consider placing sorters in a very central back-office area.

“A lot of libraries hide them away—put the machinery in a room by itself,” she says. “[H]ave it as part of your work flow, because it really is part of your work flow. Have it where your staff are walking by, have it where your carts are. Have it where it’s convenient” to other areas of the building.

It’s also not unusual to see the sorter integrated into the design to showcase it—via peepholes that allow views of the conveyor belt or the sorters—which, when done well, can be fun and interactive.

SEVEN UP Georgia’s Forsyth County Public Library’s Cumming branch is one
of the busiest in the state. Last August, it installed a new seven-bin sorter from bibliotheca

Shared benefits

All major AMH systems have many similarities. These systems will work with both barcodes and RFID, but implementing RFID is a significant undertaking for any library system. Barcode-based AMH systems will be slightly more expensive than systems with RFID, since barcode scanners must be installed both above and below the belts of a sorter system to account for patrons returning items face up or face down, and/or include modules that reposition materials for proper scanning. However, as Ayre notes, this expense will be much lower than the total cost of implementing RFID. For any library starting from scratch, “you have to think about whether RFID is the right solution, or if materials handling is the right solution,” she says.

All of the sorting systems described here also offer auto-leveling bins with electronically or spring-adjusted floors that keep books and other materials pushed to the top of the bin. This both prevents damage to materials by ensuring items don’t take a steep fall off the sorting system and provides an ergonomic benefit for staff, who can take items out of the sorter bins without repeatedly leaning over.

One feature pioneered by Tech Logic—conveyance systems designed to separate materials dropped into book returns in bunches before they reach the sorting system, rather than requiring patrons to return materials once at a time—has been adopted by bibliotheca with its new bulkSeparator and P.V. Supa with its Item Separator. Another concept developed by Tech Logic, “Print and Apply” hold slips, which places hold slips on relevant items during the conveyance and sorting process, has been adopted by P.V. Supa with its automatic hold slip applicator. All vendors offer options for sorting holds.

Experts contacted for this article note that any library looking to implement an AMH system will need to take a close look at all available options, potentially including vendors with install bases overseas, such as mk Solutions (discussed below); D-Tech International, which recently opened a U.S. office in New Jersey; or Australia-based FE Technologies. Here we’ll cover just a few of the recent innovations made by vendors with a major North American presence.

what’s new

After 18 months in development, Tech Logic’s ValueIT system launched in April. Designed to help libraries monetize donated and weeded books, the system scans the barcodes or RFID tags of each book on the conveyor and checks each title against Amazon’s used book database. Following parameters set by the library, books are automatically priced and marked for sale. High-value items—typically about 20 percent of weeded and donated materials, according to Tech Logic’s estimates—are separated for shipment to Amazon for sale online. The remaining materials can then be sold via local book sales or otherwise disposed.

Tech Logic’s R&D department “noticed high levels of inefficiency in the way libraries were handling weeded and donated items,” explains Meyer, noting that many people or organizations shop library book sales for high-value items that they then resell online for a profit. “We recognized an opportunity to help libraries retain a larger amount of revenue and profit from selling those items.”

The feature facilitates Tech Logic’s goal of having its AMH systems support libraries through the entire life cycle of books and other materials—registering new items with the ILS, sorting items during the returns process while items are circulated by the library, and then adding value during weeding.

Lyngsoe Systems, which provides automation and logistics solutions for airports and airlines, postal and shipping businesses, and other industries in addition to libraries, recently launched its Intelligent Materials Management System (IMMS) for libraries in the United States. The logistics system was originally developed with Denmark’s Aarhus and Copenhagen public libraries beginning in late 2013.

Using materials settings such as collection codes or float codes, rules such as minimum/maximum number of copies per title per branch, and ­parameters such as shelf capacity by branch, IMMS works in conjunction with an ILS and Lyngsoe’s AMH equipment to sort and distribute books and other materials to a library’s most appropriate branch locations. In addition to other features, staff can also use the IMMS web-based client or smartphone app to find the current location of individual items throughout their library system, whether those items are on sorters or trolleys, in a tote out for delivery, or in a branch on a shelf.

“It basically takes over the management of the flow of items throughout the system—the floating circulation management,” says Cory McCoy, president, Lyngsoe Systems U.S. “We also do dynamic sort algorithms, dynamic shelving algorithms, and ­chaotic storage of items throughout the library based on needs and the rationales behind those needs. There’s a large amount of data going back and forth—we’re even communicating with other vendors that might want those items if they’re being under­utilized by the ­library.”

Lyngsoe has a formalized agreement with DiscoverBooks designed in part to help libraries manage stock of best sellers as circulation declines in the months after release, McCoy explains. “For example, the library buys 700 copies of the latest [best seller] when it first comes out. The newness wears off of that item six months or a year down the road, and they only need 400.” IMMS can automate purge lists to sort such items for sale and delivery to DiscoverBooks, he says.

AMH systems are generally safe for use by adults, but the sorting systems by mk Solutions feature safety enclosures that fully cover conveyors and bins, which give libraries more options for system placement and use, says Markus Flory, CEO of mk Solutions.

“You can put it in a public area without any additional coverage or glass walls, etc.,” he says. In addition, some libraries only allow dedicated staff to work with sorting equipment, he says, but the full safety enclosures enable libraries to relax such ­restrictions.

P.V. Supa, with development partner Hancock County Public Library, IN, has created the Holds Management System (HMS), which enables libraries to batch-scan sorted items on hold, with the company’s software assigning a l­ocation for pickup, and sending a notification to each patron alerting them to the shelf location (multiple items with the same title are assigned to separate shelves). For holds that aren’t picked up in time, staff can use HMS to batch-update expired holds and either process as another local holds request, return items to the stacks, or process for shipment to another branch or holds location.

Smaller solutions

Many major urban libraries have implemented custom AMH systems and central sorting solutions during the past two decades, but the modular nature of these systems has begun making sorters a reasonable capital expense for any library grappling with high-­volume circulation. While the examples here—such as the Darien Library and FCPL’s Sharon Forks branch—are certainly outliers in that regard, manufacturers are also addressing demand from smaller branches with products such as P.V. Supa’s Libretto Compact three-bin unit, the mk Solutions two-bin Mini Sorter, and scalable modules from Tech Logic, Lyngsoe, bibliotheca, and others.

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