Posted by Lori Ayre on March 31, 2014

If you are designing a new building, you shouldn’t be considering automated materials handling (AMH).  You should be planning for it. 

\When we talk about AMH, we are usually referring to two components:  a self-check-in machine and a sorter. With prices well under $30,000 to get a 3-bin AMH unit, nearly every library can afford one – budget-wise and space-wise.  They cost less than one FTE and can take up as little as 8’x10’ in floor space meaning it costs less than the FTE it saves.  And your AMH unit will never have any ergonomic injuries no matter how many returns it checks in every hour. 

A 3-bin AMH is the smallest size that makes sense.  It allows you to get items checked in immediately-which patrons really appreciate.  And, it separates the material that needs staff attention from material that can go right back up on the shelves-which staff really appreciate.  I usually recommend that the third bin be used for sorting out the returns that need to “go home” so they can easily be moved to delivery bins.

The most common size sorters fall in the 5-bin to 9-bin range.  It turns out that there is a point of diminishing returns (no pun intended) when it comes to sorter sizes and these 5-9 bin sorters hit some kind of sweet spot.  They are available for under $200,000 and can do the work of 2-3 FTE.  They eliminate numerous steps from the materials handling workflow, and improve services to customers (instant check-in, better turnaround of library material).  Every new library being built should assume they’ll have one -- and libraries that don’t have one now, should be looking into buying one.

And, in fact, many libraries are getting AMH systems for their libraries. Vendors report installing 3-4 systems per month.  But, something is going wrong with many of these installations and I don’t think it is the AMH equipment that is at fault.  It has everything to do with whether or not you and your staff are on the same page with the reason you’ve introduced an AMH system into the mix, and whether you've effectively planned for the changes that are required to leverage the new technology.  So, what’s going wrong?

To help identify the pitfalls, I’ve developed a short list of the best ways to sabotage your AMH implementation.  Whether you are buying a little 3-bin system for your single library branch, or rolling out 3-bin, 5-bin and 7-bin systems to all your braches, there are some surefire ways to ensure your implementation goes south fast. 

As much as possible, try to keep everything the same.

The point of adding an AMH system is to shake things up.  It’s an opportunity to re-assign back room staff to new library initiatives. Most libraries only need one person in the back room tending to the sorter.  Maybe one of those check-in clerks is your new public computer Help Desk person!  Introducing an AMH system is the time to rethink the way you use your staff.

It’s also a time to shake up expectations. Performance measures need to be challenged.  Why should it take more than 24 hours to get a book request from one library to another?  Why should it take more than 2 hours to get your incoming delivery up on the shelves? Set some targets and see what the technology can do to help you get there.

I’ve seen libraries add AMH systems and then report that they have the same number of people doing the work as before, and that it takes just as long to do each task. If that’s the case, something didn’t get changed that needed to be changed.  You have to redeploy staff, redefine position descriptions, and set new performance measures.  Otherwise, you will undoubtedly succeed in sabotaging your project! 

Treat the procurement like Christmas, surprise your staff with the new purchase!

Some staff will see the automation as just another way to keep them away from library patrons.  “Our patrons WANT to come to the circulation desk to check out their books!” And it may be true that some patrons do, but there are other ways to ensure staff have opportunities to engage with patrons.  However, it isn’t immediately obvious how and where that will happen when you take away that big circulation desk so you’ll have to re-jigger your service points.

And, of course, there’s the fear that more self-service and automation is just a way to get rid of staff entirely.  These fears take time to address.  More importantly, they take a plan. As I stated before, you can introduce the automation and just keep all the same people doing all the same things and taking the same amount of time.  Or, you could make a plan for new ways of using existing staff.  That’s what I recommend.  And, to be effective, you need to involve the people affected by the changes to help plan the new service points. You shouldn’t wait until the sorter is in the middle of the workroom to decide what everyone is going to be doing with material, with the machine, and most importantly, with your customers!

Rely on the vendor’s projected metrics – don’t bother doing all that measuring on your own!

When I do an AMH or RFID procurement, I ask the vendor’s to provide an ROI (return on investment) analysis, which they are more than willing to provide.  I generally find that the numbers they come up with show a much shorter payback than I can show!  But that doesn’t mean it isn’t useful.  What it means is that you now have a candidate target.  You may never reach the vendor target but you should establish your own targets and you should define metrics to help you track whether you are getting closer to your goal.  Equally important, those targets needs to be intimately tied to your service goals.  Answer the questions “what are we trying to improve for our customers?” and “what metric will tell us if we are moving in the right direction.”  Tracking turnaround times is a good one (returns to shelves, hold requests to hold shelves, library to library delivery, receipt of delivery to checked in and shelved).  All of these metrics should dramatically improve with AMH, and they result in making more of your collection available to your patrons more of the time. 

Assume the patron user interface is intuitive.

As much as the vendors try to create intuitive user interfaces, they really aren’t.  Or maybe they could be - but only if you have aligned all of your circulation policies to support self-check-in, you’ve tweaked the error messages that patrons will see when something doesn’t work as planned, you’ve provided all the signage they need to start at the right spot, and you’ve got someone nearby who can help them through the process the first time or two. Just like staff, patrons need training and hand-holding when you roll out a new AMH system.  They won’t immediately see the benefit of getting their items checked in immediately (“That’s it!  Everything’s checked in and here’s your receipt!”), or might be intimidated by the machine (“Let me show you how it works”).  Unless your patrons are all 11 years old or younger, they will need a little hand-holding the first couple of times they use your new system.

Design workflows around the exceptions.

Even if you’d got the most intuitive user interface, the most useful and obvious signage, an enthusiastic, supportive staff, and instantly better service for patrons…..some people are just going to be ornery about the changes.  But that’s just the way it is.  There will be a small percentage of (often vocal) staff and patrons who are not happy with change.  Period.  But that doesn’t mean you develop workflows around their needs.  Help them through the changes and help them connect to the services they need (“Come to our new Service Desk, we’ll be happy to talk to you about that!”) but don’t make decisions that will whittle away at the benefits for a small number of people.  I see this often with library policies. Policies designed to address that one patron who abuses a service can have unintended consequences at the self-check machines. Instead of catching and prosecuting the patron stealing DVDs, the library installs a $200,000 disc dispenser or security system.  Of course you have to address these issues but don’t design the system around the exceptions, design the system around the other 80-90%. 

Once the system has been installed, don’t mess with anything!

All systems have default settings. This applies to computer systems, even human systems, and definitely AMH systems. Your installer will do her best to set up your AMH system to suit your needs.  But, if you really want to optimize its operation, you are going to have to take ownership of it.  This means learning what settings can be changed by you, what settings can be changed by the vendor, and what behavior indicates there’s a problem.  I’ve walked into too many library backrooms and seen equipment that has failed to function as advertised yet the staff haven’t taken action by contacting the company or even submitted a support ticket. There are also plenty of knobs and switches that the library can, and should, be comfortable using.  For example, every sorter has a sort plan – the algorithm that determines what gets sorted where.  These sort plans oftentimes need tweaking so that the load is balanced across the bins or so the fastest filling bin is the one closest to the exit –that sort of thing. Someone on staff needs to adopt that AMH system and make it their own.  And that means keeping it in excellent working order by doing the required maintenance (cleaning the belts and sensors), establishing good relationship with the support team, experimenting with configurations that better support the library’s needs.

 If you can afford these pitfalls, you are well on your way to providing your library staff and your library customers with a better experience.  AMH systems allow libraries to make better use of staff resources, save money, and, when used right, even save space.  But to do all that, you have to work with your staff to plan the implementation, identify your goals in customer service terms, identify the metrics you’ll use to measure success, train people in their new roles, and get everyone on board with all the changes that are required to make your investment worthwhile.


This article will appear in the May, 2014 issue of Strategic Library, a publication of Library Resources Group.