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Thursday, October 28, 2010

Self-check, automated materials handling

Recently I was asked by a colleague what I thought about our 2008-2009 adoption of self-check and AMH solutions. Bob Pasiznyuk, who was our IT associate director at the time (now the director of the Cedar Rapids Public Library in Iowa) was chiefly responsible for that decision and its implementation, and I swear he wrote it up for me, although I can't lay my hands on the paper.

But for other librarians considering the solution, here's the short version about why we did it, and roughly how it played out.

We had three problems:

* extraordinary growth of use.
* sharp restrictions on space (for more traditional circulation stations)
* limits on dollars for additional staff
* a rising incidence of repetitive motion stress injuries

The use of RFID tags, self-check stations (3M), and automated materials handling units (sorters from three different companies) was the right solution.

Our initial investment was about $1 million. We paid for it out of savings. We calculate that we recovered our costs in about 18 months. The new setup enabled us to:

* replace large circulation desks with much smaller self-check units. We didn't phase them in. We pulled out the desks and put in the self-check units. We hit 90% use of those machines for all checkouts in the first week. (Kudos to Bob for noticing that we had to tweak a lot of little policies and procedures so we didn't have to prevent a checkout for every little thing. We were trying to ENCOURAGE its use, so we did.) This also freed up a LOT of space for display, and hold shelves.

* we DID phase in the attrition of employees. Roughly, we found that we could have one former circulation person oversee three stations, stepping in when there were problems. That reduced staffing needs in that zone by 2/3.

* in the checkIN process, we went from 5 to 1. One person could oversee that basic check in process, pulling bins, fixing jams, instead of 5 people moving materials from cart through terminal to cart.

* those two trends reduced injuries and headcount. The former circ clerk became a papaprofessional zone manager, problem resolver, display builder. This is a big staffing change. There are FEWER people employed than before.

But please note that our goal wasn't to fire people. It was to improve service. We did. And though we now have fewer staff in those functions, the ones that remain have new duties and better pay.

In 2009, Bob cited the following stats: "Automated checkin systems now handle about 96% of the library’s inbound circulation. The library’s circulation has increased from 4 million circulations per year four years ago to 8 million circulations this year with a drop in overall circulation FTE. The mean time to shelf has changed from 50 hours to just over 2. Claims returns by the public have dropped by 75%."

Continuing issues:

* automated materials handling units are not cheap. You have to budget for ongoing maintenance, for new bins, and so on. But there is no question that it's cheaper than the human beings its replaces -- and far kinder on the bodies of our staff.

As I've written elsewhere, this latest wave of technology has utlimately precipitated a staff change that still ripples through our organization. In brief, the circulation DEPARTMENT is dead, and a new, more integrated reference/inventory management team is on the rise.

And just incidentally, the public loves it. They get that we save money, but we also offer extroardinary convenience and confidentiality. They place holds at night, breeze in and grab them in the morning, and it all happens in a fraction of the time it used to take.

1 comment:

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