With omni-channel retail making orders more diverse than ever before, increasingly refined methods are key for sortation systems. Johanna Parsons investigates.
Getting the best value from a sortation system depends, like any automated equipment, on balancing the various requirements of the individual operation. But with the challenges of omni-channel distribution, the infinite diversity of products to be handled and orders to be picked, it seems that different ways of installing and using kit is as crucial as what equipment is selected in the first place.
Global distribution networks are being transformed by the demands of internet retailing, but even in postal systems new product profiles are testing sortation systems. A recent report, “Achieving high performance in the post and parcel industry” by Accenture found that while mail volumes had declined by 21 per cent in the six years up to 2013, marketing mail was growing in some areas, and parcel volumes had increased by 5 per cent from 2013 to 2014, driven by e-commerce.
More ad-mail and parcels means more non-standardised items to handle, and considerable adaptations for sorting systems. Peter Light of Dematic gives one example: “The proliferation in use of the poly bag has seen a challenge for a lot of sortation systems in recent years. The malleable nature of the product means that a mechanical mechanism can cause jamming.” He says that this is where the versatility of certain sortation equipment can be key.
“The cross belt sorter is perfectly adapted to handle a wide variety of goods from poly bag to carton and at a high rate. Likewise, the linear sorter can be specified to handle this range of types and may be more cost effective for smaller or lower throughput systems,” says Light.
Mike Alibone of SSI Schaefer agrees that versatility is invaluable. “As any sorter manufacturer worth his salt will tell you, the more generic you can make a sorter, the more the sorter sells.
“The key differences in determining which products can be handled lie in the method of exit of the product from the sorter and the way in which the product arrives at its drop station. Both of these need to be considered if the product is likely to become damaged as a result of being sorted in a particular way,” says Alibone.
But with product profiles being so changeable, it’s not always easy to get the right fit. “Nowadays it is virtually impossible for a client to specify a footprint and product type they want to sort,” says Matthew Nickson, director of Axiom GB. “It’s important to understand the available technologies and understand their limitations so you can make some educated decisions,” he says.
And he suggests the big questions investors should be asking: “Do we need to invest in a top end sorter that sorts everything, when a simpler system will sort 98 per cent of the product profile? Can we manually sort the exceptions, rather than trying to design a system that can handle everything? Can the technology we are investing in be tailored to meet future changes in the business, speed up, handle different product types and so on? and does the partner supplying the sorter have the ability to support the customer with future changes at a sensible cost?”
Overall, Alibone says that when making an investment decision, “the selection of a particular type sortation system will undoubtedly be made initially on the throughput of product in the operation, in combination with the number of ‘destinations’ each SKU needs to be sorted to and the physical compatibility of the product with being handled by the system.”
A ‘destination’ in this sense can refer both to a geographical location, such as a specific retail outlet which requires the product for point of sale, or to a destination on the sorter – for example a discharge lane for multiple pallets or cages, which may be sorting items to a delivery route, not a specific geographical location.
Nickson concurs about the significance of the destination, warning that “destination control” is crucial to efficient sortation flow. “I would say one of the biggest challenges is the destination design, getting the product from the sorter to the shipping container efficiently as possible.
“Too many times I have seen a sorter manned up with loads of people at the destinations packing into boxes and I’ve wondered what’s the point?
“This is simply because the destination is not large enough or designed well enough to buffer product when a person is not available to off load it. A good example of a very efficient solution is the system we supply to Health span, 100 destinations sorting to mail sacks and only two people to man the destinations, this was due to the destination design and accumulation for product while sacks were changed,” says Nickson.
Dematic’s Light agrees that a more considered design for what to sort and when can reap dividends, in particular to hit deadlines with a pre-sort. “Sortation equipment is by its very nature highly flexible in how it can be implemented. For this reason the same hardware can easily be used to fulfil both traditional store orders through to e-commerce – particularly where a pre-sort pushes back despatch times maximising the chance to pick orders for next day delivery.”
Alibone points out that it’s important to ascertain if the system will handle the product throughput at recognised daily or annual peaks.
“Spikes and surges such as those posed by ‘Black Friday’ are potentially so great that they can easily exceed the capacity of conventional sortation systems. Sequencing, especially for e-commerce orders, is now an important add-on to sortation, allowing items picked at different times and from different parts of the warehouse or distribution centre to be delivered to a specific internal destination – normally a packing bench – at the same time so that an order can be fulfilled and shipped in one shipping container,” says Alibone.
Julian Mosquera of LCP consulting factoring peaks is a key to designing an optimum sortation solution. “From an operational perspective it is all about throughput capacity and the ability to ramp up sorter capacity at peak periods,” he says.
“It is also important to demonstrate the ability to cope with growth by only increasing labour moderately to cope with the volume uplift. In this context we would consider investing in system redundancy such as extra induct stations to cope with peak and off-take marshalling areas that for much of the trading period lie idle. While this may seem unproductive, the labour uplift even for short peak periods can be extremely costly and the payback warrants the investment.
“An alternative strategy we also evaluate is combining a less automated area for very fast movers where we can get the pick productivity across short walks,” says Mosquera.
Indeed scaling back the technology in some areas can make significant savings. Edward Hutchison of BITO says that simple solutions are often all that’s needed. “Many multichannel retailers are now picking store orders and online from the same stock rather than having siloed pick faces or facilities for each channel. There is significant trend of moving from the use of traditional small parts storage products such as shelving and longspan racking towards inclined shelving and carton live storage,” he says.
Alibone says that semi-automated systems are a great way of increasing sort accuracy but still retaining some human intervention. “Such systems are less expensive and rely on software to map the distribution of a particular product to a series of manual ‘put stations’.
“I have seen this system operated successfully with computer monitors above each drop-point. Each screen can be split up to six ways,” says Alibone. “In this way it is possible to have up to six ‘destinations’ at each drop station, which dramatically shortens the walk route.”
With the infinitely changeable product mixes in today’s distribution channels it’s no surprise that there is no “one size fits all” sortation solution. But the dazzling diversity of sorting equipment, and the myriad methods to chose from, means the perfect fit is surely out there.
Case Study: Getting IT sorted
The Delivery Group has invested £800,000 in a new sortation system provided by Bowe Systec for its managed mail business CMS Network. The technology will improve the processing speed of a range of material from postcards and letters to magazines and poly-wrapped items.
The new sortation system sorts mail destined for the UK and abroad, has the capacity to handle custom delivery routes and provide full management information tracking.
The software reads both typed and handwritten addresses and has the ability to print on demand either direct to mail or via a label. The system also offers a return mail function for efficient and accurate handling of undelivered or returned mail.
Steve Stokes, CEO of CMS Network, which specialises in managed mail and international courier services, said: “This investment has been part of a collaborative approach with Bowe Systec, whose UK postal market expertise is first class. Our decision to work with them was based on long standing partnership with our sister company Secured Mail.
Steve Stokes added: “We are confident that our customers will see real benefits from this investment.”
Technology: What’s in the box?
SSI Schaefer has combined several of its “tried-and-trusted” products to create a new sorter on a smaller footprint than comparable systems.
The Batch Pick ‘n’ Scan Sorter integrates efficient batch picking and automatic inspection with scanning of 1D and 2D barcodes, plus downstream sorting of customer orders. It can be used for many purposes particularly for picking e-commerce orders, which typically have small but diverse items to handle, and also for the growing and complex phenomena of e-commerce returns.
The Batch Pick ‘n’ Scan Sorter completes its tasks in four stages. First, at the feed-in station, items of many types and sizes are placed manually onto a V-shaped belt conveyor and automatically separated.
Each item is then scanned from six sides using a vision system, and the information captured is processed and analysed.
From there they are fed to a linear distributor, synchronised with the sorter.
Based on the vision-system data and the customer order, the items are then fed from the distribution table to the sorter, before being dropped into the corresponding order tote.
This sorter is capable of a throughput of 4,500 items per hour, and is suitable for a variety of tasks across diverse industries.
The system can sort any products that are not spherical and do not exceed 260 x 180 x 180 mm in size. Its integrated scanner for 1D and 2D barcodes is designed for highly accurate picking, making it ideal for goods receipt, generating bills of materials and delivery notes, and for tracking batches and serial numbers in the pharmaceuticals industry.
Case Study: Sortation delivers healthy ROI
Healthspan is a UK online retailer which urgently needed a packet despatch system for shipping its vitamins, minerals and health supplements from its head office in Guernsey to customers throughout the UK using the Guernsey Postal Service and Royal Mail.
The firm’s problem was that the Guernsey Postal Service had implemented a new requirement for all bulk mail to be sorted to 120 destinations.
To fulfil this requirement Healthspan had two choices; either to have their packets sorted by the Postal Service – a costly option, or to sort the packets themselves. They chose the second option.
Manual sorting would have necessitated fifteen extra staff sorting all day, every day. So the firm urgently required a cost effective sortation system.
Healthspan’s operations director, Chris Jackson says: “We sourced Axiom through the internet, and invited them and several competitors to tender proposals. Axiom was our chosen partner because they were able to create a sortation machine that was tailor-made for our needs; while remaining competitive on price.”
Healthspan’s demands included an imperative deadline of just ten weeks; a limited footprint for the overall operating space; delivery to an island location; and the speed of the system had to be capable of consistently handling a minimum of 4,000 packets per hour irrespective of packet sizes which could range from 200g to 800g.
Reliability was also essential due to the relatively isolated island location. Any problems impinging operation would mean a hugely costly delay.
Axiom’s delivered system consists of induct conveyors which deliver a consistent train of regulated products to the sorter, a Series PR (popup roller) sorter with 50 dual direction carriages.
As part of the contract Axiom designed and installed all supporting system controls and automation, software and interfaces. The company also provided training for the new equipment, a spare parts package and bi-annual servicing.
The system is based around several operators manually loading product that have been pre-labelled with a customer shipping labels onto induct conveyors with the labels facing upwards.
On arrival at the sorter, the packets are automatically scanned using an overhead omni-directional barcode reader. The barcode is forwarded to a conveyor control server running a Linux based sortation control system. The server sends ‘ship to’ and weight data to the sortation control PLC.
The packets are conveyed to 100 bespoke ‘intelligent chutes’ and bins (mail sacks which are held in place with supports). With just two operators responsible for removing full mail sacks and replacing them with empty sacks, an integral accumulation/buffer solution for the packets was crucial.
Products are automatically tracked as they travel through the sorter and when they arrive at the correct destination the system checks to ensure there is free capacity in the mail sack. This is done by embedding the product weight into the barcode so that the system can constantly update sack weight.
If the sack is full, the product is diverted into a bespoke chute capable of holding a similar volume of product to the mail sack. Once the mail sack has been emptied, an automatic door opens and the packets fall from the chute into the sack.
Jackson says: “Although the system was a considerable investment for us, at just under £250,000, it has paid for itself within the first year.”