Digital media returns demand efficient logistic systems

Even in the age of downloads and streaming, film studios and music labels continue to supply an enormous amount of digital media, such as CDs, DVDs and Blu-rays, with both audio and video content, as well as computer games and software. However, not all of the copies of these products sell; a small yet significant amount of residual stock remains on the shelves, begging the question: what happens to the unsold media? The return of this stock, so-called trade returns, is a logistical challenge that can be efficiently dealt with by, among other methods, barcode reading technology from Cognex.

Cinram GmbH in Alsdorf, Aachen manufactures physical-format Blu-ray, DVD and CD media and associated print components. It also manages pan-European and worldwide distribution to logistics partners and offers many more support services on behalf of studios and labels. Constant optimisation of the supply chain to trade partners and consumers is a top priority. This also includes trade returns, where automated procedures, such as those involving Cognex barcode readers, come into play.

Cinram’s Alsdorf central European production centre is the company’s largest distribution site, employing around 1,000 employees. Every day, Cinram manufactures up to 900,000 units of optical media, supplying Amazon, Media Markt/Saturn and all its other European trading partners. Each day, the facility receives 30,000 returns from stock taking, excess stock or lack of consumer interest that must be recirculated. These returns go back to the providers, using Cinram’s operational processing service.

This is where Cognex products come in. Sorting these products manually would be neither viable nor practical, which is why an automated solution was developed. Sorting is carried out by a returns sorter, eliminating the majority of the manual work. The barcode reader is located directly above the conveyor belt, so placing the physical media on the line is the only task done manually to ensure the barcode on the disc is facing up.

In order to process the high number of returns, the line runs at a speed of almost 1.2 metres per second. At this speed, the barcode reader must identify the small code amidst other graphics on the disc and successfully read the code despite minimal surrounding white space. This information is tracked so Cinram knows where the media came from and how it needs to be processed.

In addition, many covers have a glossy, reflective surface. While this might be aesthetically pleasing for the buyer, it presents an extremely difficult challenge for the barcode reader. With all of these factors at play, the equipment currently deployed at Cinram was not providing the read rates needed for an efficient operation. The high rate of false readings required far too many disks to be handled manually.

After various tests, Cinram chose the Cognex DataMan 303 image-based barcode reader. It is a versatile fixed-mount barcode reader, with numerous integrated lighting and lens options and intelligent auto-tuning. The DataMan 303 handles hard-to-read DPM (direct part mark) codes as well as challenging 1-D barcodes and 2-D matrix codes. It is suitable for timed processes and high-speed lines. Both the integrated and adjustable lighting and the liquid lens with variable focus enable optimum adjustment of the operating distance, depth of field and field of view in order to achieve the best possible read rates for the particular application.

The DataMan 303 is able to achieve a read rate of approximately 99.7%, resulting in fewer than 15 disks per day requiring manual recirculation. Cinram was very pleased with this result, realizing both time and cost savings.

Today, two sorters with several Cognex readers are in continuous operation in Cinram’s facilities in Germany and France. The barcode readers send the information that is read from the codes to the controls. Depending on the disks (type, source, manufacturer, etc.), the controls then dictate the consequent actions to be taken. Disks that belong together are assigned to their waiting bins, which, thanks to Cognex barcode reading technology, is a process that takes only a few minutes.

Rene Huppertz, Electronics & Automation Manager at Cinram, on the implementation: “Despite the very special product and logistical requirements, with the Cognex equipment we were able to carry out a standard implementation without any real difficulties. The commissioning time was short; the whole procedure was limited to the setup, training and test run. We also duplicated this configuration at our French site in Champenard.”

Author: Janina Guptill, Marcom Specialist, Cognex Germany Inc.