Today, ecommerce companies are challenged to accurately and quickly fulfill orders. Every step in the ecommerce fulfillment process must be handled accurately, efficiently and quickly to maintain a positive customer experience.
One company that has mastered this challenge is YourSurprise.com, a Dutch ecommerce fulfillment company that markets personalized gift items to a wide and diverse marketplace comprising 22 countries. Since 2005, YourSurprise has seen consistent and rapid growth in sales. Today it is shipping approximately two million gifts per year, at a 30%-plus annual growth rate.
“These gifts include pendants, chocolates, photo albums, mugs and custom shirts,” said Bartjan van Damme, Production Manager at YourSurprise. “All of our products are individually personalized for each consumer.”
Personalized gift items require delicate handling. Manual fulfillment is fine with low order counts, but as YourSurprise expanded the challenges of order accuracy and on-time delivery increased exponentially.
“Because of our accelerated growth in the numbers of gifts needing to be shipped, we really needed to work more efficiently,” explained van Damme.
Another complication was highly variable demand, particularly as the company spread into new countries with different holiday seasons. Also, dealing with multiple shipping companies in different countries created a massive struggle with sorting packages. Sending out thousands of orders daily, human error was causing a significant amount of lost profit.
Move to Automation
“It was necessary to mechanize and automate as many of our processes as we could,” said van Damme. “But we wanted to still maintain the same ideals and principles of personalized attention to our customers that we started with.”
In 2017, YourSurprise met with Shuttleworth, a designer, manufacturer and integrator of conveyor solutions.
“Shuttleworth guided us every step of the way by suggesting what would suit us and our operation the best, and what would fit into our budget and timeline and predicted growth,” van Damme said. “In September we gave the approval to install the equipment, and had the entire system done, installed and in use by the end of December.”
Smart Conveyor Technology
Focusing on Shuttleworth’s roller technology, more than 2,000 linear feet of smart conveyors were installed at YourSurprise in 2019.
“It exerts exactly the right amount of pressure on the delicate gifts,” explained van Damme. “The accumulation, keeping products from jamming and becoming marred or damaged, is a big factor, especially in the sorting area.”
The conveyor system is designed to carefully transport gifts ranging from one centimeter (0.39 inches) to 40 centimeters in length (15.7 inches), and weights ranging from 50 grams (1.8 ounces) to 20 kilograms (44.1 pounds).
The system allows the same conveyor to be split into multiple, independently operating lanes if desired. The conveyors have the ability to modulate the speed of different sections. As products are moving down the line, the rollers at the back end of the conveyors can be moving faster than the ones at the front end of it.
The product spacing on the conveyors can also be controlled, keeping the fragile items separated and equally spaced from each other to minimize product contact. This also facilitates infeed into packaging and labeling equipment, and smooth transitioning into shipping diverts.
The conveyors minimize product contact while steering products into desired locations, such as employing rollers with herringbone patterns to orient products without the use of guardrails, or using rollers with tapered corners to maintain product orientation as they are transported through conveyor turns.
Product Control Devices
Throughout the 2,000 feet of the smart conveyor system product control devices have been installed to bring a much higher level of positioning accuracy with more positive product handling.
“The system has the capability to identify the different types of products that we are moving through the system, and where they are in the system,” added van Damme. “Each order, and all products associated with the order, is assigned a license plate which is scanned at locations throughout the system, so the exact location and status of all orders can be viewed in real time.”
Combination orders are held in a buffer zone until all items have been accumulated, and only then will that order be released for packing and shipping.
The YourSurprise order line starts with placing an order through the company’s website. The order is then released into production for personalization and automatically routed through the fulfillment line – order consolidation, packaging, labeling and designated shipping lane.
“The entire system is integrated into one smooth operation,” explained van Damme. “Since the conveyor install, we have reduced our order error rate in ecommerce fulfillment by more than 60%, with 100% accurate shipping.”
Sydney Riggs writes on ecommerce automation for ZebraCo, Inc.