Steering a Nissan forklift through a cavernous hangar in Yorkshire, England, driver Tony Brookes gingerly picks out pallet No. 175, containing thousands of white plastic packs filled with mathematics exam scripts that have been completed by students but not yet marked.
Mr. Brookes, who works at Pearson Plc's Edexcel during the U.K. summer testing season, has been told by the computer screen on his forklift that at this hour - 11:37 a.m. on a Friday in early June - more math scripts are needed by work colleague Cheryl Kennedy, who in turn helps feed them into a conveyor-belt system for processing.
Through a radio-frequency "gun" that scans bar codes and delivers information to her, Ms. Kennedy has been told that 3,372 maths exams are needed for processing at this time - so they can be prepared for markers.
"The gun double beeps when I get to 3,372," says Ms. Kennedy, and at the same time the forklift computer screen will tell Mr. Brookes to retrieve the rest of the maths pallet, return it to a storage area, and bring back a fresh pallet of English exam packs to Ms. Kennedy.
Scanning each page for distribution
This elaborate system in Hellaby, 160 miles north of London, is part of Edexcel's "just in time" system for processing exam papers for distributed scoring by about 8,000 markers located throughout Britain.
The Hellaby facility 160 miles north of London
After being fed onto the conveyor belt, the exam packs are cut open, the paper script bindings are sliced off, and each page is individually scanned by electronic devices. In this way, entire pages or just specific questions can be sent via secure Internet connections to the distributed markers - some of whom are experts in particular areas such as maths, history or geography.
With about 4.6 million scripts and 22,000 different exam items to mark during a summer exam-scoring season that lasts only six weeks, Edexcel has implemented this complex system to ensure that distributed markers receive the volume of questions and scripts they need when they need them. The Hellaby facility processes different types of U.K. exams, including GCSEs (General Certificates of Secondary Education), GCEs (General Certificates of Education) and a new Diploma system recently introduced by the British government.
From 1 million to 4.6 million scripts
"On some days, hundreds of thousands of scripts arrive at this facility on up to seven massive lorries," says David Hansell, head of operations at the Hellaby facility. "We went from processing 1 million scripts in 2004 to 3 million in 2005 and 4.6 million now, so we realized we needed a new model - and that's why we introduced the just-in-time system."
The Hellaby facility has about 35 permanent staff and up to 400 temporary workers, working two shifts, during the busiest season. On a typical peak-season day, 1.5 million sheets of paper are scanned over the two shifts.
By carefully monitoring past patterns and day-to-day trends, Mr. Hansell and his team can accurately predict how many pages of a particular discipline will be needed by markers in any given time period. Sometimes, special fine-tuning is needed: there were some noticeable lulls in the marking of physical education exams in June 2006, and this is because many of the people marking the exams were physical education teachers - and they took a break from marking to watch television during the finals of the World Cup soccer championships.
"So we had to adjust to that," Mr. Hansell chuckles.
Quarantine system ensures quality control
An extensive system of quality control means that some scripts are pulled aside into a "quarantine" area if scanning problems are discovered. This often stems from an extra sheet of paper being attached, or students having written in red ink rather than the black ink needed for distributed scoring; in those cases, which tend to be about 4% of all scripts, exams are marked traditionally rather than electronically.
Hellaby operations head David Hansell and local Member of Parliament John Healey stand in front of a giant television screen that charts the pace of the facility's 26 scanning machines
There are 26 scanners at the Hellaby facility, all named after a country including Mexico, Norway, Russia and Egypt. While most of the scanners operate at a maximum 4,200 pages per hour, the machines named Italy and Japan have higher specifications to allow 8,000 pages per hour. A giant television screen in the middle of the room marks each machine's pace, via a bar chart.
"You can see that Romania and Canada are in the lead right now," says Jane Hudson, Edexcel's data capture manager in Hellaby, "but Italy and Japan are rising through the chart. The guys operating those two machines just came back from break, so Italy and Japan will quickly surge back into the lead."