Choosing the Right Sortation Systems to Meet Fulfillment Needs

Dan Vessell, Contributor

When sortation systems no longer work to address certain throughput scenarios, things can start to go awry, until the problem is addressed. These can include slow-moving orders, unmet demands, accumulated errors and heightened labor costs. Therefore, it is of great importance to make appropriate considerations when determining the right system for your business. But, where should companies start? In many cases, it’s best to first identify areas of need before selecting the right sortation automation system, which tend to vary greatly.

The Issue at Hand  

Generally speaking, sortation automation systems are divided into three categories to address various throughput scenarios. Options exist to address low, medium and high throughput—but a sortation or conveyance automation system that works well in one application might not be a good fit elsewhere. This dilemma complicates determining how and when to implement these technologies, to alleviate piled-up orders around peak delivery periods or to help support time-consuming manual labor tasks.

Getting started

Every company has different needs, objectives and challenges. That’s why various sortation systems exist, each tailored to any market or application. To help identify which system is the best fit, a company should consider its anticipated throughput and whether that amount is static or expected to change over time. Thinking about daily throughput in terms of units per hour is a logical starting point, as is determining key pain points regarding expected return on investment (ROI). Ideally, decision-makers should work to determine which system will offer the highest throughput rate at minimal speeds, while also preserving product integrity and key system components for years of reliable, low-maintenance operation.

Once a company is able to identify how many packages or goods must be sorted over a given period of time, and how throughput performance is expected to impact ROI, these insights should help inform the decision-making process. It’s also helpful if companies consider where they’re situated against competitors and how that affects overall growth outlook. For instance, is it necessary to implement continuous automation to offset ongoing labor challenges, or are those technologies only necessary situationally during peak seasons? In short: How much throughput does a company have; how fast is it moving; and how does that impact the business?

Choosing the Right System

At one end of the spectrum are low-rate systems, such as a sweeper sorter, handling about 6,000 units per hour. These systems consist of modular units installed above a conveyor belt, pushing units into outlets on either side. Sweeper sorters are good at handling large amounts of small products in post, parcel, e-commerce and pharmaceutical operations, and are also able to accommodate many different sort destinations in high-density configurations. However, these systems are often unable to accommodate larger boxes and totes.

Potential solutions to address challenges in these applications include mobile picking carts, manual processing, pick-to-light, as well as voice-directed picking technologies and motor-driven rollers (MDR). Each of these solutions deliver required throughput for distribution centers dealing with generally steady volumes, save for a few spikes during peak seasons.

In the middle are systems such as sliding shoe sorters, handling between 9,000-24,000 units per hour. These systems use specially designed “shoes” to push single streams of items along a carrying surface of interlocking slats, ultimately landing on a post-sort conveyor. These systems can handle a wide range of product sizes and packaging types, from large corrugate boxes to smaller, malleable polybags and bubble mailers. While such systems are generally good at addressing mid- to high-level throughput needs in single-sided configurations—they can face size limitations.

To help mitigate mid-rate throughput challenges, which are more often faced year-round, companies should consider implementing bomb-bay or push-tray sorters. These systems are often combined with high-speed conveyors to help distribution centers handle more sustained throughput requirements year-round.

Finally—high-throughput applications processing 27,000 units per hour include tilt-tray sorters that use a series of trays mounted to carts running on a continuous loop. Products are released to destination chutes and are then directed to sorting destinations. This continuous, carrying surface enables the system to reliably handle virtually any product or package type—from pill bottles to large boxes.

Tilt-tray sorters are an ideal solution for high-throughput e-commerce order fulfillment operations with a large, diverse inventory. One important consideration with tilt-tray sorters is that they allow for easy future expansion should throughput needs change over time.

Additional high-throughput systems include cross-belt sorters, using a series of belt conveyors that can easily handle tight-radius curves, as well as inclines and declines—making them a strong solution for operations with limited space or challenging layouts. Another possible solution to help address challenges in high-throughput scenarios are high-speed line sorters.

What Else to Consider

Once a business has identified its throughput needs, challenges and areas for improvement: What’s next? Throughput isn’t the only factor to consider when deciding which sortation system is best. Operations should also weigh space requirements, employee skill levels and potential expansion.

When it comes to space requirements, many decision-makers turn to solutions fit to handle e-commerce needs. This requires outfitting existing buildings or back-of-room spaces with the right technologies designed to maximize the number of destinations in a very small footprint.

Decision-makers must also consider maintenance staff and operator skill level when choosing the right sortation system. Daily operation and maintenance tasks can vary widely by technology and by equipment OEM. Therefore, businesses should consider how existing personnel will interact with the equipment and maintain the new system.

Finally, companies should always think about whether they plan to expand operations in the future—a consideration that might indicate which sortation system to implement. If there is even a possibility for future expansion, this should be carefully weighed at the outset. Otherwise, the ability of future expansion, in terms of throughput rate or divert locations for units, can be limited by the technology or by initial system designs.

Looking Ahead

When it comes to logistics and supply chain management, efficiency is a critical component in keeping pace with evolving customer demands and outperforming competitors. With online sales growing rapidly—post and parcel, e-commerce and wholesale distribution operations must seize every available opportunity to increase efficiencies across their organizations.

After identifying throughput needs, and considering factors such as available floor space or future expansion, decision-makers should have a good sense for which sortation automation technologies they need to keep operations running smoothly and productively. This landscape may feel unnavigable to many; but, with careful consideration of the important factors discussed, decision-makers should feel empowered to navigate the range of systems and voice solutions to help streamline processes; optimize workflows; and get products from warehouses to customers’ doorsteps faster than ever before. WMHS

About the Author:

Dan Vessell is Product Manager for Sortation Systems at Honeywell Intelligrated.