‘Mini Yellow’ sortation robots help ZTO meet the demands of ‘singles day’


With a client list that includes such e-commerce giants as Alibaba, PDD and JD.com, ZTO Express’s share of the Chinese express parcel delivery market is approaching 20 per cent, which makes it one of China’s most significant parcel handling businesses.

The company operates a highly scalable partner network model – in effect a ‘hub and spoke’ system ­­- that enables it to provide online retailers with cost-efficient, countrywide reach. 

ZTO’s network partners are responsible for first-mile pick-up and last-mile delivery services, while the mission-critical transportation and sorting processes that take place in between pick-up and parcel delivery are undertaken by ZTO. 

At one of its many smaller satellite sortation facilities that serve the city of Hangzhou, ZTO processes between 10,000 and 50,000 parcels each day using a system that, until recently, had relied heavily on manual labour. 

However, with the number of parcels passing through the site increasing, the manual approach was beginning to struggle and incur additional costs. For example, at peak periods such as the hugely popular annual shopping festival initiated by Alibaba known as ‘Double 11’ or ‘Singles Day’ (which, this year, saw a mind-boggling 580,000 online orders placed every second at the busiest times), the workforce at this Hangzhou unit had to be supplemented by temporary staff to ensure that throughput targets were met – which, course, meant an increase in operational overheads.

Clearly a new approach was required but with the site’s typical daily throughput not considered sufficient to justify the introduction of a traditional (and costly and inflexible) automated cross-belt sortation system, alternative technologies were appraised.

After a comprehensive review of its needs, ZTO introduced ‘Mini Yellow’ autonomous mobile robot (AMR) technology from LiBiao Robot at the Hangzhou site.

LiBiao’s ‘Mini Yellow’ range has been developed as a flexible alternative to fixed tilt-tray and cross-belt conveyor-based sortation systems and can be quickly and easily deployed at sites where space is restricted for a fraction of the cost of old-style conveyor-based parcel sorting technology.

At the Hangzhou facility where LiBiao technology has been adopted 20 LiBiao robots operate on a simple platform which has been erected in a floor area measuring less than 50 sq metres. The LiBiao ‘bots process around 2,000 parcels per hour, however, if required, additional AMRs can be introduced to increase handling capacity at the site to 7000 parcels every hour.

The sorting procedure is incredibly straightforward: each parcel arrives at the sorting platform and is simply placed on to the first available ‘Mini Yellow’ robot, the parcel’s destination code is scanned and the information transmitted to the ‘bot which then travels along the ‘table’ platform and deposits the package into the appropriate bagging station. Just a single worker is required to operate the system.

Apart from the obvious savings in labour costs, a further benefit to ZTO is the ‘Mini Yellow’s’ flexibility: additional robots can be introduced as and when they are needed and the technology is fully portable – meaning systems can be switched between sites if required.

Thanks to the operational benefits delivered by the LiBiao solution combined with the rapid payback on its investment at this relatively small site in Hangzhou, ZTO is planning to roll-out additional ‘Mini Yellow’ systems at other sortation facilities across China.

LiBiao Robot’s founder and chief executive, Xia Huiling, comments: “Such are the high levels of customer satisfaction with ‘Mini Yellow’ technology, that some 70 per cent of the businesses that have introduced the system so far have become repeat customers.

“Online shopping is growing at a tremendous pace across China and driving up the number of parcels handled, so companies such as ZTO are looking to invest in technology that will ensure that they keep pace with the needs of the market. Companies that install the ‘Mini Yellow’ sorting system recover the cost of their investment very quickly.”

More than 10,000 LiBiao autonomous mobile robots are in operation at ‘blue-chip’ client facilities worldwide – including Walmart in the US, Uniqlo in Japan and Kmart in Australia ­– and it is estimated that some two billion parcels a year are processed using LiBiao AMRs.

LiBiao Robot recently announced that two models from the ‘Mini Yellow’ range are now available in Europe  – a 5kg tilt-tray robot and a 30kg cross-belt model. Both types have CE certification.

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