Cognex image-based barcode reading technology automates DVD return process
One of the most expensive processes at Netflix was the handling of DVD returns. Huge resources were tied up in manually opening mailers, taking out the sleeved discs, checking the titles on the DVDs against the sleeves, checking the discs for physical defects, cleaning them and scanning them into the system. To improve production quality and reduce labour costs, Netflix asked several of the world’s leading automation companies to propose solutions for their customer returns process. Seven companies were invited to tender, of which two were selected to develop and build a prototype, competing head-to-head in a four week performance trial taking place in California.
Bronway Automation, a specialist automation solutions provider based in County Wicklow, Ireland, was one of the two companies selected to build a prototype for the trial. They designed, developed and installed their ARRM3600 (Automated Rental Return Machine) prototype in a Netflix distribution hub in California. Following an intensive trial period set within a live production environment, Bronway achieved superior performance results and were awarded the contract to supply 180 production units.
The ARRM3600 units were supplied directly to 42 Netflix distribution centres across the US. The delivery and installation schedule was challenging with a commitment to deliver six machines per week, each consisting of over 6,500 components, all of which needed to be rigorously tested and validated prior to installation. Despite these tight deadlines, all installations were completed on schedule. Bronway completed the entire manufacturing program without missing a single Netflix “go live” date.
Vision Technology Makes the Difference
To undertake the necessary inspection and verification checks throughout the rental returns process, the ARRM unit utilises advanced DataMan® barcode readers from Cognex to read barcodes on the envelope, sleeve and DVD disc, which is communicated by the Bronway ARRM to a central server to ensure complete traceability throughout the process. Each ARRM unit has nine DataMan 100 code readers positioned at various stations to undertake barcode reading and inspection tasks for 3,600 mailers per hour.
James Frost, General Manager at Bronway Automation commented, “Cognex and the DataMan barcode reader were chosen because they offered a single vision solution that could read the Netflix disc hub barcode at any radial orientation and the reading of barcodes to determine the orientation of the Netflix sleeves. No other supplier could offer a single unit to address both requirements. Following contract discussions with Cognex for the 1,620 DataMan units required, we were satisfied that the DataMan was the correct choice for Bronway, both technically and commercially.”
The Rental Return Process
At the start of the returns process, the Netflix mailers are loaded onto the first of two rotating carousels. Each mailer is placed in a nest and then rotated under the second station where it is checked for thickness (no disc, one disc or two discs). For single disc mailers, a DataMan is positioned above the dial plate to read a barcode on the outside of the mailer, should the mailer be orientated upwards. A second DataMan, positioned below the dial plate, reads the barcode if the mailer is facing downwards.
The next step is to cut open the mailer which is then rotated to the next station where the loose flap is removed, before being transferred onwards. Once the sleeve has been extracted, the DataMan identifies the barcode position to determine the orientation of the sleeve so that the disc can be extracted from the sleeve. As the sleeve can be orientated in any one of eight orientations (four orientations if facing upwards and four orientations if facing downwards), four DataMan (two on top and two below) are used at this station to read the barcode and determine the orientation. When a barcode is detected, the data and location is reported to the ARRM, thus allowing the orientation of the sleeve to be determined and manipulated later on in the process by repositioning the open side of the sleeve outwards so the disc can be removed.
Each Netflix DVD has a doughnut shaped barcode label affixed around the centre hole on the artwork side of the disc. This is called a hub ring label. Once the disc has been removed from the sleeve, the barcode must be scanned. The disc can be in one of two orientations (facing upwards or facing downwards) at this station. Two DataMan barcode readers are mounted here (one from above and one from below) to read the barcode on the hub ring label. The orientation of the hub ring barcode is not fixed in a specific radial orientation; the camera must read it regardless of position. The orientation of the disc is determined by the DataMan that returns a barcode result. The disc is then re-orientated if necessary for subsequent cleaning and surface scanning. Once the discs have passed the surface scan inspection, they are reinserted into their original sleeve.
The ninth DataMan scans the barcode on every sleeve prior to the ARRM3600 assigning its delivery to a specific location for further processing.
In addition to providing the ARRM units, Bronway undertook a comprehensive training program with Netflix operators, technicians and engineers across the US.
Paul Johnson, Director of Operations Support, Netflix Inc. stated, “Since go-live, this project has exceeded our expectations in all areas. Having automation to check that the correct disc is in the right sleeve has had a measureable impact on our customer satisfaction. The reliability of the DataMan has been excellent, and even when we did have an apparent issue with the barcode readers (the root cause of which was actually with a USB hub) the speed with which Cognex sent an engineer to work alongside Bronway to quickly resolve the problem on-site really impressed me.”
John Voris, former Vice President of Operations Engineering, Netflix Inc, viewed this Bronway project as: “By far the most challenging project I’ve ever been associated with, and they’ve done a very good job of hitting all of our milestones and any performance we were looking for.”
Andy Rendich, former Chief Service & Operations Officer, Netflix Inc. stated. “With Bronway you get great engineering, great partnership and great automation”.
Martin O’Malley, Managing Director, Bronway, viewed the selection of the Cognex barcode reading technology as “critical to the overall success of the project. Great care and attention was paid in the investigation of all available vision suppliers, their vision systems and their technical competence to support a project of this magnitude and technical complexity. Cognex was selected as the vendor of choice for all these reasons and our faith in them to deliver on their commitments was fully validated when technical issues arose. Cognex showed their commitment to finding a solution by working hand in hand with Bronway engineers (on-site in California) to fully understand the problem and subsequently engineer a new version of the driver software for the DataMan barcode readers which worked flawlessly thereafter. Cognex proved to be a great partner for Bronway and I would have no hesitation in partnering with them again on future projects.”