Canada Post has officially opened its new flagship e-commerce hub, the Albert Jackson Processing Centre in Scarborough, northeast Toronto. At 54,350m2, it’s the post’s largest sorting facility by far, doubling its processing capacity in the Greater Toronto Area (GTA).
The facility cost the company C$470m (US$340m) to build, and can process up to one million packages per day, sorting more than 60,000 packages per hour. This is 50% more than the post’s Gateway facility in Mississauga, Ontario, which was previously its largest parcel plant.
“A package can arrive, be processed and ready for dispatch in under four minutes,” notes Alexandre Brisson, vice president of operations transformation at Canada Post. Completed in September 2023, the new sorting facility was built in response to the company’s expectation that e-commerce volumes will double in Canada over the next 10 years.
“The market is growing around the world, that’s no secret,” Brisson says. “We saw a big bump in e-commerce due to Covid, when the parcel market surged. When we look at the next decade, we think that market is going to double. Capacity is core to our business, so that’s why the Albert Jackson facility came to life.”
Critical to the national network
Geographically, the center’s location was chosen because the GTA is an important hub for the post. Population density is high and the area is quite central, explains Brisson, meaning many of the country’s parcels go through the GTA on their way either east or west. “From a logistics standpoint in Canada, the GTA is to some extent the center of the universe,” he says.
Building the facility was a massive project for the post, and not without its challenges. Design took place prior to the arrival of Covid-19, but the pandemic and its ensuing lockdowns were at their height during the build phase. “We lived through supply chain disruptions, shortages of materials such as steel, and also labor shortages due to sickness and confinement measures,” adds Brisson. “That was very, very challenging, so to get through all of that during Covid was really quite something.”
Due to the many converging factors of the time, such as implementing social distancing measures and managing the availability of workers to ensure the project’s progress, contingency planning became critical. Canada Post’s approach was to “be quite aggressive” in the way the facility was built, in terms of working on equipment installation while construction was still underway.
“We were equipping the facility at the same time as building it,” says Brisson. “Whenever we were far enough into the building, we would start to install the equipment. It was like, ‘build a section of roof, then equip the area below it while we continue extending that roof’. “There was some very intense coordination and interaction between the different trades doing the work. That’s just one of the many reasons we’re so proud of this facility today.”
Where the magic happens
Now fully operational, the facility is like a small community, with a workforce of 900. The huge space contains almost 8km of conveyors, but what’s different about this plant is that very little equipment is on the ground, as the sortation equipment is suspended from above, maximizing space on the depot floor.
“You walk in, and the equipment is almost all up in the air; the floor is where the employees work. That’s where they interact with the machines, but the magic is all upstairs. The plant is made up of platforms and walkways and that’s where the real sorting, the heavy lifting of the machines, takes place,” Brisson says.
This helps to create a more open, friendly space for staff, with skylights bringing natural light into the building. “It’s far from that feeling of being in a dark manufacturing plant,” he adds. The plant was designed with automation in mind, and currently 90% of the sorting is automated. This will be augmented next year with the introduction of automated guided vehicles onto the shop floor, providing further improvements to processing speed and efficiency.
At the heart of the facility are its two state-of-the-art crossbelt sorting machines, one for parcels and one for packets. The large parcel machine goes around the edge of the facility in a big loop and the packet sorter sits in the middle.
The sorting systems are smart enough to interchange parcels if one ends up on the wrong machine. The packages are then sorted through to one of the facility’s 300 splits used to segregate the post into destinations. Pallet unloaders, the first of their kind in North America, enable the post to unload and process several parcels at once, which is safer and faster than manual handling.
“The parcels show up in metal cages or wrapped on a pallet, then our equipment takes this to the machine. We’ve got any dumpers and tilers feeding the machine, and thanks to automation this bulk induction cycle is much faster,” Brisson notes.
Sensors track the parcels throughout their journey on the machine, but Brisson is keen to point out that it’s the software – and the staff who analyze the data it produces – that keeps everything running smoothly. “The software is the brain that keeps all the parts moving, and there sure are a lot of parts,” he says. “This is what coordinates the way the parcels move around the facility. But when you’re looking to improve performance or troubleshoot, the people on the floor are the important ones.
“They’re checking the live feeds from the machines on their laptops and reacting to this. You don’t just turn on the machines and let them go. They’re complex and require constant monitoring. We get all the information through the software and our ability to react is key to maximizing productivity.”
Data analysts and process engineers are therefore key, but Brisson points out that the mechanical and electric engineers are just as important. “The mechanical, electrical side is always going to be important. We’ve got thousands of moving parts and you have to keep your machines running,” he notes.
“It’s really a game of process. You have to get all the actions right in order to get the maximum performance. You need to plan the logistics around the technology correctly; for example, ensuring you get the trucks to the loading bays quickly and easily and that unloading is as efficient as possible. If you’re not feeding the machine correctly, it won’t work correctly. “To really deliver for our customers, we need all the parts to play together, to be synchronized, and so we see this as an integrated process.”
Looking to the future
Now that Albert Jackson is up and running, Canada Post’s next big project is meeting the company’s commitment to fully electrifying its fleet of 14,000 delivery vehicles by 2040. This is a huge undertaking but one the company is determined to meet. Investments are already underway, and several depots are now fully electrified. Albert Jackson was built with this in mind, with 10 charging stations already available for employees to use, and pre-wiring in place for bigger trucks.
“We’re starting to see more choices around electrification when it comes to last-mile delivery, but I think the market is behind when it comes to the bigger trucks with trailers,” Brisson explains. “We’re committed to converting the fleet though, and we’ll electrify our five-ton trucks whenever we can.” The post also continues to monitor the quality of its network to ensure capacity is in place wherever needed.
“That’s an ongoing process,” says Brisson. “We’ve got a core team looking at capacity all the time and we’ll continue to invest in that. I think, with Albert Jackson, that we’ve established a new standard and that’s the plant we’re going to build going forward.”
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