As part of his work as an automation engineering apprentice at Royal Mail, Matt Shillings took on a project to improve the performance of the Leeds Mail Centre’s sorting machines. Here he talks us through his work.
Automation is crucial for Royal Mail to provide a quick, efficient and affordable service for over 29 million addresses. For 65 pence you get a lot for your money and to truly understand this you have to appreciate the complexity of the journey that a piece of mail must go through.
As an automation engineer it is important to keep this mantra of an ideally quick, efficient and affordable level of service in the foreground and to be proactive with my work. This is so we can achieve the ultimate performance with our automation machines.
In Royal Mail there are many areas in which I could have chosen to begin a project. Examples include a specific machine area, improving single parts, reducing cost, increasing performance, improving the longevity of a part’s life, data analysis and environmental type projects.
For my project I chose to focus on reducing cost as we are in a declining market in terms of letters. Within this area I decided to look into rejects on our Intelligent Mail Processor (IMP) machine.
Rejects are all the mail pieces that are unable to be sorted using our automation machine. There are many reasons this can happen such as incorrect sizes or the address being unclear. Once a mail piece is rejected it then has to be sorted manually, which is when you see a significant increase in the cost per item for delivery.
I hypothesised that if I could reduce the quantity of rejects then I could increase the throughput of the machine, but also reduce cost to the business as less mail will be have to be sorted manually.
I started by using Royal Mail’s internal data reports to find our biggest losses for rejects. After obtaining historical data from our machines up to a year previously, I found that the majority of rejects were ejected at the culling point before going through the machine fully.
There were three clear reasons causing the majority of rejects, that items were too long, too stiff or the gap between two mail pieces is too small. Now that I had a direction to move towards, I could begin further analysis and develop countermeasures to try improve and tackle these issues.
I decided to take a holistic approach to my project as I could use my data analysis graphs to experiment with different IMP set-ups to reduce rejects. Having considered the issues, I decided to target the measuring beams, stiffness detector and the feeder set-up.
I first created a baseline for all our machines. By setting up graphs I knew what each machine was working to before I made any changes, this way I could track whether I’d made any improvements. Creating this standardisation before I started was also important as I found from my figures that each IMP was working at a different level.
I spent a total of eight months on this project, but before I could put my results into a cost saving structure I needed to investigate the cost for both manual and automated sorting. This was a challenge and involved me working with many different pillars in my mail centre. Communicating with these senior managers was needed to obtain reliable information to calculate my savings. Through this work I found that the cost of sorting a piece of mail manually is four pence more expensive than being processed through an IMP.
Through my work on the IMPs the reject average has dropped by 0.16 per cent – a 13.6 per cent increase in performance! This may not seem like a huge achievement but when you expand this improvement across our Mail Centre, which destacks nearly 60 million items a month, it can make an incredible impact on savings.
Before my project the average amount of items rejected was around 2 per cent. Here at Leeds Mail Centre we have eight Integrated Mail Processors, which meant a significant numbers of letters had to be manually sorted. This means before my project it was costing Leeds Mail Centre a significant amount to manually sort the rejected letters.
Through my mail de-stacking improvements the average for rejected mail reduced to around 1.5 percent, providing a saving of over £4,000 a month per Integrated Mail Processor, which potentially could save the business close to £50,000 a year!
Unfortunately this type of project is difficult to sustain due to different mail types coming through the doors every day, but this improvement is very positive. I believe with further work and understanding of the machines I could reduce this even further.
Being an apprentice at Royal Mail has been fantastic for me, as I’ve I have been able to really get stuck into work I enjoy. I gain huge satisfaction from being able to look at the results of my project and say that I have actually made a difference.
Being an apprentice has let me learn things much more thoroughly and being shown the equipment by the engineers who work on these machines every day has helped me significantly. I aim to achieve further in my Royal Mail career and am keen to work hard for this.