South Africa’s first fully robotic parcel sortation system now operational at Johannesburg logistics hub


What is thought to be the first fully robotic parcel sorting system to be deployed in South Africa is now operational at the Johannesburg hub of the country’s leading e-commerce and logistics services company, BUFFALO Couriers.
The sortation system at BUFFALO’s 35,000 square metre multi-client facility was supplied and installed by Black Rhino and features 90 autonomous mobile robots from LiBiao Robotics’ ‘Mini Yellow’ range.

Among the key drivers behind BUFFALO’s decision to adopt LiBiao Robotics’ robot technology are the greatly improved picking accuracy and advances in parcel throughput speed that the system delivers. Indeed, so great are the benefits that the ability to eradicate sorting errors and process parcels quickly and accurately is expected to result in Buffalo seeing a return on its investment within 18 months.

When planning the upgrade at the Johannesburg site, BUFFALO initially considered a traditional conveyor-based solution. However, the company’s management team was impressed by the energy efficiency and system up-time benefits that LiBiao Robotics’ robots offer in comparison.

Not only are the robotic system’s running costs significantly less but, should the facility’s power supply suffer a brief interruption – a common problem in some parts of Africa, the robots continue to perform thanks to their built-in electric battery and independent control system.

With conveyor systems a power outage can have a significant impact on parcel throughput speeds and result in increased operational overheads if extra unplanned maintenance work has to be undertaken following a power cut.

And, of course, unlike conveyor-based sorting systems which must be shut down to allow essential repairs to be carried out if a fault develops, in the unlikely event of a malfunctioning robot the individual unit is simply removed from the ‘shop floor’ and quickly replaced - with no discernible drop in throughput capacity and without incurring extra service costs.

From start-to-finish it took under a single week to install BUFFFALO’s system and no significant alterations to the infrastructure of the company’s existing building were necessary. Furthermore, thanks to the simplicity of the robots’ clever design BUFFALO’s warehouse personnel needed little more than a few minutes of training to become comfortable with the technology.

BUFFALO has calculated that its warehouse personnel are now productive for around 95 per cent of their time – before the introduction of the LiBiao Robotics sortation system this figure was as low as 25 per cent.

At BUFFALO parcels are placed onto a ‘Mini Yellow’ robot at the system’s induction point. The package’s shipping label is automatically scanned and the robot receives instructions to deliver the parcel to one of a series of destination chutes located around the perimeter of the operating platform.

A destination chute is assigned based on the town or city to which the parcel is bound and the system’s navigation technology directs the robot and its load to the designated chute via the shortest route.

BUFFALO’s warehouse manager, Catherine van Zyl, said: “With our local delivery service covering city centres as well as remote parts of the country, we face a range of different logistics challenges every day within our business. But by investing in advanced technology and equipment, such as our new LiBiao Robotics robot-based parcel sortation system implemented by Black Rhino, we ensure the shortest fulfilment times as well as providing maximum protection and safety for our clients’ packages as they pass through the supply chain.”

“In today’s ultra-competitive online order fulfilment arena a highly efficient parcel sortation operation is essential. Our mission is to provide productive, reliable, and safe solutions that allow our clients to fulfil their orders in the shortest time possible,” added Black Rhino’s general manager, Mike Zhang. 

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