Parcel Sorting System, Guangzhou Mail Centre
In Milan, Italy, I developed several intralogistics projects with Beta 80 S.p.A., a specialised software house. I was providing expertise to the team engaged in the design and implementation of parcel sorting machines made by Fives Intralogistics S.p.a., former CML S.p.a., the Italian company leader in the logistics sorting technology.
We were serving leading operators in the logistics and chain retail industries such as TNT Traco S.p.A. and WH Smith PLC.
My speciality was the human machine interface and the interconnection of equipment and upper information systems. Thanks to years of experience in automation I was able to understand the process with its peculiarities and offer support to the team beyond my specific assignment.
The new Guangzhou mail centre
In year 2000 I joined the international team that Siemens assembled inviting the worldwide leaders of parcel sorting and mail processing, to create with China Post the largest mail processing centre of Asia at the time, in Guangzhou.
I was in charge of the parcel sorting system's SCADA project. SCADA, Supervisory Control and Data Acquisition is the component that provides human interface to control and monitor the equipment while collecting, processing and distributing information in a network of interconnected equipment. The SCADA handles any status change, anomaly, command, as well as performance and production report, historical logs, and graphic presentation.
Two parcel sorters were installed one for the inbound and one for outbound traffic.
When a parcel is sent from place A in a city to place B in a different city it arrives to the mail centre through the collection network of post offices and vans and is fed to a sorting system through an induction line that reveals the parcel's physical parameters such as size and weight. The inbound sorter scans each parcel destination, detects the city it is bound to and drops the parcel into a chute which content is all addressed to the same city.
The content of the chute then is delivered via mail transportation means to the destination city where in a local mail centre it is similarly fed to an outbound sorter through induction lines and the outbound sorter will distribute each parcel to the proper chute receiving parcels for the same postal office.
From the outbound sorter the parcels are delivered to the destination postal office and from there to the destination addresses after a local sorting process, often manual. This way our parcel travels from place A to its destination B passing through inbound and outbound sorters.
For each parcel the equipment collects crucial information and updates the tracking record allowing real time monitoring.
The sorters must process reliably and in matter of hours hundred of thousand parcels a day running nearly uninterruptedly. There is no space for mistakes and time to fix them. The continuous flow of new parcels would overwhelm the system causing major disruptions of the postal systems.
Data processing must be accurate and reliable, equipment must be fault tolerant, anomalies must be signalled and handled promptly and effectively, operator commands must execute safely but with no delay.
The requirements for the SCADA system were:
- receive information in real time from equipment
- connect to 15 different types of equipment, each using custom communication protocols
- merge and process the information in real time to feedback to the automation systems
- handle thousands of alarm and warning signals with proper priority
reliably convey to the operators and to the central systems the updated status of the equipment
- process with no delay the operator commands according to security and safety criteria
- produce accurate and extensive historical and statistical reports.
The best product available on the market that was capable to handle properly the amount of information and assure reliable operation was USDATA FactoryLink®, of which I was leading specialist and system integrator.
The project covered the synoptic representation of two machines in dozens of graphical screens, alarm panels, operator commands, and, in the background, continuous update of more than 20,000 pieces of information with 15 different components through proprietary communication protocols.
Development and deployment spanned 6 months between year 2000 and 2001 and completed on time.
The system started operation later the same year as soon as the other components of the mail centre were completed, and ran for 15 years without a glitch until China Post substituted the entire parcel sorting system with a new one of Chinese production.
Note: Siemens abruptly dismissed FactoryLink® in 2008 after acquiring UGS PLM that owned it. Siemens only maintained their own original HMI software.
During the project in the mail Centre I formed strong bonds with the engineering team and the leadership. I was called several times afterwards by Guangdong China Post as technology counsellor for the mail centre.
In 2004 I lead a joint team with specialists of the mail centre, for a large industrial project of production tracking for a private company.
In 2008 China post called me to remake part of the automation of the Parcel Sorting System to increase further the performances.
The aim, largely reached, was to increase the throughput beyond the original design specifications and connect with the new state of the art mail information system that China post developed.
Lessons I learned
As many experts arriving to China I was very focused on the technology and confident of the superiority of my experience. I ignored the way Chinese team work. But I was very lucky and I want to thank the colleagues and leaders in Guangzhou mail centre who helped me to learn key lessons for my life and work in China.
When someone in the team was struggling with the technology I learned to listen and then enlighten a path for everyone to stay on pace and reach the best achievement. I learned to trust the team and the leaders and make myself a powerful tool at their service for the common benefit.
The trust speeding China is the walk of people, not the run of single champions. People that walk together at the same pace along a path which destination everyone can see. People proud of their achievements and eager to do more, that respect capable leaders and reward them for their service.
I learned that there is place for innovators and free thinker who have the humility to keep their mind open and listen and learn from the others, and the courage to enlighten new visions, but also explain their dissent.
And I learned that bond of friendships that is so important root of life in China.
Some related links
Translated automatically through Google translation
Guangzhou Mail Processing Center: Asia's largest distribution center (in English)
Links from China Post (several expired, sorry)
Technology Innovation Boosts Network Development (in English)
A small test (in English)
Guangzhou: Dancing with change (in English)
2.29 million pieces! Guangzhou Central Bureau's package sorting volume reached a new high (in English)
Guangzhou Central Bureau "Double 11" mobilization (in English)