April 19, 2018

Automated Materials Handling | Product Spotlight

Automated materials handling (AMH) refers to any automation that reduces or eliminates the need for staff or patrons to check in, check out, or sort material, or to move bins containing library materials. Those jobs are handled by checkin machines, sorters, conveyors, singulators, stackers, and unstackers, speeding up processes throughout busy branches and central libraries.

“With AMH, patrons’ materials are checked in before they step foot inside the library,” says Lori Bowen Ayre, principal consultant for the Galecia Group, which partners with libraries to evaluate materials handling workflows from acquisitions to interlibrary delivery to help them function more efficiently.

“[Patrons] are walking through the doors with a clean slate and their hands free. Circulation goes up dramatically because reshelving happens quickly,” Bowen Ayre adds. “Staff can spend more time on programs and interacting with patrons. Really, it’s a slam dunk.”

AMH does not require a library to be using RFID (radio frequency identification) tags, and although these systems often go hand-in-hand, Bowen Ayre contends that AMH is “much more important than RFID…. With RFID, you have to replace security gates and self-checks and tag everything. It’s a major overhaul. But AMH can be rolled out incrementally, placed in branches based on space or volume, or implemented at the operations center only.”

There are two primary strategies in the AMH industry: drop-and-go and intelligent return.

With drop-and-go, the self-service return behaves like a book drop, with no control on induction. Items transfer to a conveyor, and the system separates materials.

Intelligent return systems control induction speed during patron return, allowing insertion of one piece at a time. Checkin happens instantaneously as tags or barcodes are read. This system even identifies nonlibrary materials—like school books or personal copies—and returns them to the patron ­immediately.

Drop-and-go is more like a traditional book drop and operates faster for the patron, delivering a receipt to the patron’s email address when items are checked in, while intelligent return provides an immediate printed receipt with 100 percent certainty of materials returns on the spot. It’s all a matter of what a library—and its patrons—prefer.

AMH companies vary in style, too, Bowen Ayre points out, so consider which company complements your culture. Does your library want to be on the cutting edge, complete with the excitement, risks, and rewards that come with the latest technology? Or do you want to stick with a company known for its tried-and-true reliability? Libraries should evaluate each company’s general functionality, too, and determine whether they fit the library’s needs—things like available space, indoor or outdoor return, noise level, size, nature, expandability of the sort plan, and integration with current footprint or systems. Considering all of these things will help your library determine which company is best suited as a partner.

Product: 3M Intelligent Return and Sorter System
Company: 3M


3M was one of the earliest vendors to bring AMH efficiencies to the masses with its Intelligent Return and Sorter System. Designed to be an affordable solution for busy branches and small libraries, the system works with either barcodes and/or RFID tags and/or Tattle-tape. It can be implemented in libraries that have equipment from other vendors installed for self-check and security.

For libraries with limited space, the basic “SL” model includes an interior or exterior wall-mounted drop for books and other materials and can accommodate up to three bins with a customizable sort matrix. The larger, modular FX model can include up to four interior or exterior drops/induction points—including staff induction—and up to 15 unique sort locations and bins. The Intelligent Return and Sorter System is also touted as one of the fastest in the industry, capable of sorting more than 2,700 items per hour, with sweep technology designed to ensure proper sorting without damage.

“Systems implemented by early adopters were often very complex and costly,” notes Matthew Bellamy, sales and marketing manager, 3M Library Systems. “We’ve always prided ourselves on simplifying the equipment to help make AMH an affordable reliable option for libraries.”

3M also has a partnership with Lyngsoe to assist large library customers that require complex, customized AMH solutions.

Product: smartreturn
Company: Bibliotheca


Bibliotheca offers the smartreturn brand of AMH solutions. These include the entry-level, prebuilt 250 model, designed with a single interior or exterior mounted drop/induction point and the capability to sort RFID tagged materials into as many as five bins. The modular 300 series supports configurations with more than five bins and includes three induction points, as well as the capability to sort barcoded items, in addition to RFID-tagged items. Bibliotheca’s smartreturn 400 series is a high-speed, conveyor-compatible, modular solution for large libraries that require customized AMH installations, including multifloor installs.

The smartreturn 300 and 400 models include a touch screen interface running Bibliotheca’s smartreturn manager software, which accommodates customized logos, texts, and languages. Designed to be familiar to users of Bibliotheca’s liber8 kiosks, the smartreturn manager interface runs on internal and external return points and features Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA)–/ Disability Discrimination Act (DDA)–compliant design and informational messages and cues to guide patrons through the checkin process.

Product: UltraSort
Company: Tech Logic


Tech Logic has long been known for building complex, custom AMH solutions for large libraries and central sorting facilities with its UltraSort brand. But Tech Logic’s solutions are scalable, and the company’s intelligent AMH machines include book drops, belt conveyor delivery systems, and interlibrary distribution systems to meet the needs of libraries of all sizes, levels, and conveyance needs, whether barcode and/or RFID is used.

Tech Logic last year launched the UltraSort NXT, designed to include the best features of the company’s UltraSort line in an affordable, small-footprint three-bin and larger system that is adaptable to “almost any existing book drop,” according to the company. New configuration options include an “automated hold” print and apply accessory for labeling reserved library materials.

The system’s wheeled Smart Bins contain automatic floors controlled by photoelectric eyes to detect when items are present and adjust depending on the level of items. Tech Logic’s De-Shingler automatically separates items on the conveyor, allowing patrons to “drop and go” with no waiting. A loader/unloader can automatically load and unload Smart Bins. For added convenience, Tech Logic’s exterior hands-free book drops have air-operated doors that automatically open when a patron places items near them.

Product: EnvisionWare Modular Sorter
Company: EnvisionWare


The EnvisionWare Modular Sorter features the WhisperSort compact sorting system which operates at <55 decibels. As its name implies, the sorter is scalable, incorporating as few as two or as many as 253 bins. EnvisionWare sorters have traditionally been intelligent return systems (see intro), but the company recently introduced support for drop-and-go sorting as well.

Receptacles include two sizes of bins: library totes used in conjunction with EnvisionWare’s automatic tote lifter, or an ErgoStack Trolley that converts to a shelving cart at the touch of a button.

The company boasts that its external returns are designed to handle adverse weather conditions and even include fire suppression. Their internal returns also offer many options, including elevators, buffer modules, arc conveyors, and more—all designed specifically for libraries. What’s more, EnvisionWare says its systems are built to stay running and are backed by 24-7 support that incorporates EnvisionWare Central Management to ensure rapid response and updating.

Product: Libretto AMHS
Company: P.V. Supa


P.V. Supa offers the Libretto AMHS, which can be outfitted with one to 255 bins, as well as the Libretto Compact small-footprint sorter.

The Libretto AMHS includes a variety of standard modules, including inlet/induction point modules, staff feed modules, sorting modules, conveyors, curve conveyors, and turning tables, making the system scalable, customizable, and upgradable.

In addition to traditional sorting bins, the Libretto AMHS also works with transportation crates (using an “index tote”–equipped sorting module) and a line of P.V. Supa ergonomic Smart Trolleys.

The small-footprint Libretto Compact units can also be expanded with additional sorting modules that each adds the capacity for two additional bins or Smart Trolleys.

A Microsoft-compatible user interface offers centralized management, enabling staff to adjust the settings of each device or generate statistical reports from dedicated AMH stations or any other computer. Separately, a P.V.-Messaging feature distributes alerts and other information regarding Libretto units and modules to library staff stations or via email and text messages.

Product: Sort Mate
Company: Lyngsoe


The Lyngsoe Sort Mate is a modular sorting solution that can be scaled to a large variety of layouts, ranging from small-footprint, three-bin systems for small libraries, to multilevel, custom systems. The systems work with barcodes and/or RFID tags and are designed to allow an “unlimited number of checkin stations.” In addition to regular bins, Sort Mate systems can also accommodate Lyngsoe’s ergonomically designed carts and trolleys, as well as interlibrary bulk totes.

Sort Mate systems are designed to work with Lyngsoe’s Library Mate self-check stations and book drops as induction points. Those systems are available with a wide range of functions and configurable design elements, including a variety of colors and surfaces to help patron-facing equipment blend with a library’s design.

Separately, Lyngsoe’s ErgoStaff induction stations are designed to speed staff checkin of returned items or branch transfers. The ergonomically designed stations are height-adjustable and equipped to read barcodes, electromagnetic strips, or RFID tags.

Product: mk Sorting Systems
Company: mk Solutions


mk Solutions offers a variety of AMH and RFID systems for libraries, ranging from security gates and self-check stations to its LibDispenser vending units and multilevel, customized sorting solutions. For smaller libraries or branches where space is at a premium, mk offers its combination Bookdrop & Mini Sorter, a two-bin sorter with a single interior or exterior mounted drop/induction point.

Both mk’s custom sorting systems and the Bookdrop & Mini Sorter are designed to accommodate barcodes, and/or electromagnetic tape, and/or RFID tags.

All systems work with the company’s LibManager software, enabling libraries to monitor the equipment and generate statistical reports remotely.

Product: RFID Library Solutions custom sorters
Company: RFID Library Solutions


RFID Library Solutions offers systems ranging from basic RFID checkin equipment to customized, multilevel, multizone automated sorting solutions. Sorting systems are developed in consultation with the company’s design engineers, who develop a selection of virtual floor plans to help customers maximize sorter functionality within a library’s available space. RFID Library Solutions uses Activated Roller Belt technology, a specialized conveyance mechanism that doesn’t use bands or belts, preventing jams and pinch points, and enabling systems to be built to follow along walls, leaving space in the middle of large sorting rooms.

The company also offers an automated tote induction system with its AMH solutions, enabling staff to empty full transportation totes onto a system’s conveyors for sorting. The system works with a mobile, battery-powered lift that helps transport boxes and eliminates the need for staff repeatedly to bend over to place totes for induction.

Denice Rovira Hazlett (denicehazlett.com; @charmgirl onTwitter) is a feature, profile, and fiction writer and a Reference Associate at Holmes County District Public Library, Millersburg, OH. With additional reporting by Matt Enis

This article was published in Library Journal. Subscribe today and save up to 35% off the regular subscription rate.

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  1. Great post on automated library materials handling. Very interesting. My friend James used to work at a library on campus and I loved seeing all of the behind-the-scenes action. These automated machines would make it even more interesting. The UltraSort system looks so complex. I would love to see it in action.

  2. This is awesome, why haven’t I heard of material handling sooner? You mentioned that it helps reduce the number of staff and lets the machines handle it. I just wonder if there is ever any issue with that. Also, if you ever have to update the machinery?

  3. Collection of great stuff. It will be good if you can provide more details