How much does it cost to run a material-handling conveyor system?

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Conveyor systems are highly effective machines primarily used to transport items or packages in a warehouse or distribution center. Companies that employ conveyors in their facilities find them reliable and durable machines that exponentially decrease the time needed to process items, simultaneously increasing the number of products that can be handled. It’s no wonder many companies use them to optimize and speed up their operations.

Have you experienced exponential growth in your material handling business, and are considering integrating your own conveyor, or upgrading older equipment? While the cost of the equipment can greatly vary depending on the size and scope of your system, operating expenses are an often-overlooked topic that plays a vital role in a conveyor installation project.

Century Conveyor Systems has experience in engineering and integrating conveyor systems spanning over 40 years. Here are our recommendations for the first-time buyer, or the supply chain professional looking to research possible material handling solutions.

Complexity of system

It goes without saying that the expenses associated with a conveyor are entirely dependent on the scope and scale of the system. A simple 100ft straight powered conveyor will have drastically less overhead costs than that of a multi-line complex system. Not all units are created equal either, as costs vary between manufacturer, model, and the function of the equipment.

Sorters, for example, employ various forms of moving components to distribute product to the output destination. Rapid sortation (like shoe, cross-belt, narrow-belt and tilt-tray sorters) uses more moving parts than medium throughput solutions like push-arm and wheel-based sorters in order to achieve the high rate of sortation that they’re known for. Expect operating costs to scale proportionately with the speed of the sorting conveyor.

Employee training

Whenever a new unit or system is installed, any warehouse associate that interacts with it must be trained properly in its operation. This includes safety training as well.

Typically, when a new piece of equipment is installed, employees from the manufacturer (or the integration company) will brief employees on the do’s and don’ts of the system, their role in working with the equipment, and the optimal way to place items on the conveyor.

For example, Century installed a dual split-tray sorter for a 3PL client, and part of the validation process included briefing employees and completing test runs of the solution with them so issues can be identified in real time. For this system, small polybags had to be positioned correctly in one of the tray compartments, while larger polybags had to be laid across both trays. Placing items in the tray incorrectly could lead to jams or errors.

With any piece of equipment, safety guidelines must be communicated and followed, especially with a continuously moving piece of machinery like a conveyor. Each unit will have clearly posted warnings near dangerous pinch points, high-voltage areas, and fast-moving components. Certain sections of the equipment that should not be touched except by a certified technician are marked as so. Employees must understand all these protocols, as well as the consequences if they are not followed. Consult your conveyor integrator or manufacturer for a full list of safety requirements as it pertains to the specific equipment.

Maintenance

Just like any machine, proper maintenance must be performed for the equipment to operate as intended. If your facility staffs a maintenance team, training can be done with them either through the manufacturer or a conveyor service company (like Century). If your company does not have its own maintenance team, it’s important to schedule routine checkups BEFORE a mechanical issue is encountered. If a conveyor breaks down during operations, it may take days or even weeks to repair it depending on the type of damage. Subjecting your operations to that amount of downtime can cost thousands in lost time and profits.

Conveyors can vary in the complexity of routine repairs it needs.

Commonplace maintenance items may include:

  • O-ring bands
  • Belts
  • Bearings
  • Chains
  • Sprockets
  • Rollers
  • Pulleys
  • Oils and lubrication

More serious repairs may require a specialized conveyor technician to fix properly:

  • Bed supports and transitions
  • Electrical conduits and junction boxes
  • Emergency buttons and pull cord switches
  • Motors and reducers
  • Brakes
  • Clutch
  • Sortation slats, shoes, arms, or trays
  • Control panels and logic
  • Compressed air
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 If you’re unsure about the extent of the maintenance needed on your conveyor system, it’s highly recommended to contact a certified conveyor repair service to diagnose your unit. Attempting to fix a component without a complete understanding of the repair could damage your conveyor further and render it inoperable. Conveyors are tuned exactly to the material it is handling. If the wrong part is used, or installed incorrectly, the system can damage both itself and the items that it is conveying.

It’s worth the extra cost to partner with a conveyor service company if your maintenance team is not trained in conveyor repair. Simple replacements (like singular rollers or chains) can be done without much risk, but critical components like motors and brakes should not be tampered with unless done by an experienced technician.

Uptime and Speed

To tie into the last point, the forecasted uptime, or how often and long you intend to run your conveyor system, factors greatly into maintenance. Conveyors that are required to operate 24/7 still need to be maintained, so it’ll have to be shut off at some point so work can be done. In comparison, conveyors that run only during business hours or certain shifts can have their maintenance scheduled during those off times.

With that, the more uptime a conveyor experiences, the more often it’ll wear through its parts. Our recommendation is to keep spare replacement parts on-site to avoid extended downtime. While the number varies greatly, the rule of thumb per hour of downtime for a 24/7 operation can eat up to $10,000 in lost profit.

Speed and the complexity of the conveyor section can also add to the frequency of its repairs. The average speed Century has observed in our systems is 65 CPM (cartons-per-minute), but rapid distribution operations that use certain sorters can reach up to 235 CPM.

As a real-world example, your car outputs a specific horsepower number but it’s not constantly using all that power unless you’re at full throttle. When it is at full performance for an extended period, the life expectancy of the engine and components are drastically reduced. Conveyors function much the same. Consider the flow and demand of your product, and if the conveyor system is constantly processing at that rate.

The saving grace is that conveyors are extremely durable, and manufacturers design them with continuous uptime in mind. Some conveyors can also adjust the speeds based on the information it’s receiving from the photo eyes and sensors. If no packages are detected in a block, it’ll turn off that conveyor section until product is detected in the previous block, then it’ll activate.

For more general speed and timing changes, the control settings of the entire conveyor system can be fine-tuned to match input and output. The system may be able to operate at high speeds but receiving and loading operations may not be able to match the rate (depending on the level of automation in your facility). Most truck loading operations are still manual, and it’s all too often to see a conveyor system running too quickly for worker loading, resulting in jams or packages and pallets being placed haphazardly.

This is why testing and validation is done by conveyor engineers, to exactly match the rate of product being processed. If there is a change in flow for whatever reason, a systemwide change can be done to either increase or decrease the speeds.

Controls

Installing a conveyor system isn’t as simple as plugging it into an outlet. Most industrial systems use the standard of 460v-480v and run that electricity through custom control panels to operate the equipment. Each control panel is built specifically to the design of the system and contains starters, relays, lights, switches, motors, and more to handle the distribution of electricity and system commands. Century primarily uses non-proprietary modules in its control panels (Allen-Bradley, for example), but depending on the complexity and needs +of your conveyor system specialized components may have to be used.

Existing control panels can be upgraded to compensate for any new equipment additions, while new systems will need a panel to be fabricated from scratch. Field wiring will also need to be done on-site to connect all conveyor sections and equipment to the panel. The typical control panel project can vary from $20,000 to $40,000 per panel, not including the on-site electrical labor. The more automated and intricate a system is, the more complex the control panel(s).

Warehouse Management Software

A warehouse management system, or WMS for short, is a powerful control tool that gathers various amounts of information to process tasks and prepare reports. WMS hubs offer a vast array of warehouse functions, all aggregated into an interlinked operating system. The main goal of a WMS is to monitor and manage warehouse operations involved in the movement of products and packages.

A basic warehouse management system can cost anywhere from a few thousand dollars to tens of thousands of dollars, while enterprise-level systems with more features and capabilities can cost well into the six-figure territory. More and more providers are offering platforms on a monthly subscription-based model, and charge according to the number of licenses (or users) that have access to the software.

 A report from Softwarepath averages $167 per month, per user for a month-to-month WMS service. If you’re considering buying the software outright with a perpetual license, $2,500 per user is the baseline for an entry-level tier.

Set-up costs are also a factor. The mid-range expenses as observed by ExploreWMS hover around the $5,000 number. Expect this to scale proportionally to the level of automation and size of your facility operations.

Additional integrated systems

Conveyors typically aren’t the only system integrated in a project unless the operations are extremely simple. Consider the functions of your supply chain. Does your facility provide picking and packing? Storage modules (like racking and shelves) or P&A units (like carton formers or sealers) may have to be integrated in conjunction with the conveyor to make the automation cohesive. It’s entirely based on the operations that your facility completes, and the level of automation you’re implementing.

At the very least, package induction should include ergonomic material handling structures if automation isn’t being used. The most basic form of this are pack tables – platforms that warehouse associates use to either complete order fulfillment or for moving packages from a static area to a conveyor section. These tables can be outfitted with horizontal rollers or omnidirectional ball-type rollers.

To further optimize manual package handling from storage to processing, flow racking can assist operators by eliminating static shelving in favor of gravity-based skatewheel channels that move product as it’s taken off the rack. Flow channels are also available for pallets to help with staging for warehouses that use them.

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Expect to spend a few thousand dollars for these ergonomic solutions, while fully automated offerings usually start at $25,000 to hundreds of thousands of dollars. If you’re working on a tight budget, but want to automate as much as possible, the used equipment market is a viable alternative to spending on brand-new units. If going this route, Century recommends having your engineering team or a representative from the material handling integrator inspect the equipment you intend to buy to ensure it’ll slot into your system without much hassle. These units are highly customized to the original system it was designed for, so it’s imperative to do your homework before selecting a pre-owned machine. The upside of this, since the equipment is so specific, deep discounts can be found.

Summary

What’s the final cost of operating an entire conveyor system? The true answer to that question is, it depends. Every warehouse and distribution center is different, and so is the equipment that is used and the operations that are completed. It’s impossible to give an accurate number without knowing every detail.

Don’t let this scare you off from implementing a conveyor system in your warehouse, though. Material handling integrators like Century can build out systems with cost-effectiveness in mind.

Always remember, the upfront cost may be a large pill to swallow, but conveyors are known to make a speedy return on investment.

Most see a 2-to-3-year return from the launch of the system. The increased throughput and stability allows exponentially more product to be processed, which is why the turnaround is so quick.

Still curious as to what a conveyor system would cost for your facility? Request a quote from Century and our automation experts will coordinate all the details with you to provide an accurate estimate.

46 Eye-Opening Distribution Center Industry Statistics

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DC Operations

  • The average hourly cost of warehouse labor in 2022 is $14.97, an almost dollar increase from 2021. (source)

  • Management positions average a $52,700 salary a year. (source)

  • Transportation, Storage, and Distribution Managers account for an employment force of 144,640 in 2022 (source)

  • The average age of an employed distribution center manager is 45 years old (source)

  • B2C pick and pack fees remained the same rate as 2021, at $3.13 per item, while B2B fees increased to $4.33. (source)

  • 80% of the United States’ warehouses are still manually operated. (source)

  • The average throughput across all package types at 100% is 20.6175 product per hour. (source)

  • 27% reported the most congested area in a distribution center is the receiving dock, with 22% citing the shipping dock as the next area (source)

  • 75 is the average amount of employees in a DC for 2022. (source)

  • 10,371 is the average SKU count in a DC for 2022. (source)

  • 85.6% is the average DC space utilization rate (source)

DC Spending

  • In 2022, over 60% of distribution center operators will be investing in new equipment and modernization over the course of the next 12 months, while 57% say that they expect their spending to increase on material handling equipment over the next 2-3 years (source)

  • The equipment that distribution centers are buying? 49% are investing in racks and shelving, 48% in lift trucks, and 40% in packaging solutions. (source)

  • What software systems and management platforms are distribution centers spending on in 2023? 40% are looking for barcoding and automated data capture systems, while 24% are investing in ERP and WMS solutions respectively. (source)

  • North America was the largest region in the warehouse automation market in 2021. Asia-Pacific is expected to be the fastest-growing region in the forecast period. (source)

  • The mobile robots market was estimated at $2.5 billion in 2020 and is expected to grow to approximately 10 times than the current market by 2030. (source)

  • Over 55,000 AMRs were sold in 2020, tripled compared to sales in 2018. (source)

  • The average CAPEX for 2023 is projected to be $1.170 million (source)

  • 1 out of 4 DCs are planning to spend $500,000 or more on warehouse equipment and technology (source).

  • 52% of DCs have spent up to $250,000 on warehouse equipment in 2022 (source)

DC Real Estate

  • As of Q1 of this year, a 4.2% warehouse vacancy rate in the US is the current situation, with some areas as low as 1.6%. (source)

  • The average cost per square foot of warehouse space in 2022 was $7.96. (source)

  • Occupancy and rent costs accounted for over a fourth of total revenue (source)

  • By 2025, the number of warehouses worldwide is expected to reach nearly 180,000 by 2025 (source)

  • Prologis, the leading logistics real estate developer, reported a 97.7% average occupancy level in 2022 Q3 (source)

Top DC Concerns

  • Safety is a top issue of importance in DCs, with 84% reporting it as a top current issue. Next in line is labor availability, with 69% reporting it as a top issue. (source)

  • For business leaders, increasing efficiency within their supply chain is their number one priority, with 63% reporting, followed by 59% in reducing costs. (source)

  • 44% of COOs see worker shortages and turnover as a top issue (source)

  • In 2021, supply chain disruptions cost the US an average of $228 million. (source)

  • Digitizing and using new technology platforms in supply chains are an issue for business leaders. 48% cite budget constraints, followed by 30% of respondents having difficulty training employees to learn and utilize new systems (source)

  • 46% of small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) have reported that supply chain delays are their biggest concern this peak holiday season (source)

eCommerce and DCs

  • eCommerce will grow and is expected to reach 22% of all retail sales worldwide in 2023, as compared to that 14.1% in 2019. (source)

  • 35% of respondents reported that eCommerce shipping (buy online, ship to customer from DC) accounts for the majority of their operations, while another 11% (up to almost half of the survey takers) say that eCommerce shipping will be the most common. (source)

  • 20.6% of all dollars spent on retail purchases came from online orders. (source)

  • The packaging market for eCommerce is expected to grow to $61.55 billion by 2026, up from $27.04 billion in 2020. (source)

  • The top eCommerce retailer – Amazon, grew 10.6% in Q3 2022. (source)

  • More than $1 in every $5 spent on retail purchases came from online orders in Q3 2022. (source)

  • Two-thirds of e-commerce companies are willing to invest more in automation due to increasing consumer expectations. (source)

Third-Party Logistics (3PL) Industry

  • Third-Party Logistics (3PL) companies in the US employ over 772,000 workers. (source)

  • By the end of 2028, the market size is expected to grow to that of $1993.72 billion, with Asia being the leading region (source)

  • 71% of 3PLs experienced new customer acquisition in 2021 as a primary driver of its growth (source).

  • 34% of 3PLs report owning 100,000 – 250,000 sq. ft. of distribution center space. (source)

  • There are over 30,759 3PL businesses currently operating in the US. (source)

  • 43% of 3PLs are looking to reduce costs and increase profitability on a per-order basis (source)

  • 80% of 3PLs cite capacity as a top challenge, with 70% citing hiring qualified labor as a secondary challenge (source)

  • The most common reason why shippers end a partnership with a 3PL is because of poor customer service with 64% saying that good service is more important than fair pricing (source).

Century Project News: November 2022

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November 2022 Century News Post

NJ Distribution Center Cross-docking System

NEW JERSEY, (November 1, 2022) – Century Conveyor Systems Inc. has recently completed the installation of a conveyor sortation system for a leading third-party logistics company.

The new system will receive inbound cartons and polybags to be processed throughout the facility for shipment, utilizing cutting-edge sortation and material handling systems for efficient distribution. Century engineered the automation system with a dual Hytrol shoe sorter for packages, a Eurosort dual split-tray sorter for polybags and parcels, along with FMH and Stewart Glapat loading door extendables. Controls and logic were engineered by LEI, Century’s parent company.

The new automation solution will provide the 3PL company with quick and efficient cross-docking operations for both polybags and cartons. The high rate of distribution the systems can achieve was a key integration factor, and choosing durable units meant stability during continuous periods of increased throughput.

EuroSort split-tray sorter

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Hytrol dual shoe sorter

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Controls, spiral, extendables, and more

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About Century Conveyor Systems Inc.

Century Conveyor Systems is a full-service material handling integrator, engineering effective automation solution designs for post-production distribution processes. Starting as a conveyor service provider, Century has grown over the past 40+ years into an engineering firm skilled in implementing all types of automation. Century’s goal is to increase output, lower labor costs, and optimize the stability and efficiency of warehouse operations.

Distribution center and warehouse trends that will dominate in 2023


2023 Distribution Center and Warehouse Trends

Increased adaption of automation

Much like last year, and the year before, distribution centers are continuing to integrate and enable various forms of automation. While the pertinent supply chain issues from 2021 and early 2022 have waned slightly, they certainly still exist, and distribution facilities are looking to ensure a similar event can be avoided or curtailed in the future.

The 2022 Annual Warehouse and Distribution Center (DC) Equipment Survey documented by Peerless Research Group reports growing interest in material handling solutions and automation from 2020, 2021, and 2022.

2023 warehouse trends automation adaption stats

The majority of systems have seen an increase over the past few years, and in 2022 alone, the leaders with the largest percent difference are packaging systems like palletizers, pallets and dunnage, from 25% to 40%. This can be attributed to the inexpensive (relative to other solutions) nature of packaging systems, the ease of integration as a stand-alone system, and how it eliminates drastically slower manual operations.

Distribution centers and warehouses (especially up-and-coming organizations) may choose to implement automation piecemeal. It could be too costly to automate all at once, or the required shutdown of operations may be out of the question for high throughput facilities. From the same study, 35% of respondents reported that eCommerce shipping (buy online, ship to customer from DC) accounts for the majority of their operations, while another 11% (up to almost half of the survey takers) say that eCommerce shipping will be the most common.

From the effects of the pandemic, supply chain strain, rising costs, customer behavior, and the difficulty in finding (and keeping) warehouse laborers, many companies are eager to implement at least SOME form of automation. The leading factor of offering quick picking, packing, sorting, and shipping for online purchases seems to be a driving force for automation, as it’s predicted eCommerce is only going to grow in the coming years. If the pandemic taught the supply chain anything, it’s to be prepared, and many distribution centers are taking that to heart by building up on automation now instead of when it’s desperately needed.


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Neighborhood distribution centers and micro-fulfillment

Warehouse real estate space vacancies continue to dip as more and more distribution centers are being snatched up. As of Q1 of this year, a paltry 4.2% vacancy rate in the US is the current situation. Along with the low available space, rent in port locations has increased exponentially, with our hometown location in northern New Jersey seeing a 16.1% jump (DCVelocity).

The state of the market has led many companies to invest in innovative real estate solutions. Aside from adding additions or upgrading existing space with new systems, micro-fulfillment centers and “neighborhood DCs” have provided a viable alternative. Instead of purchasing or renting massive hub distribution centers, the focus has turned to smaller spaces that have the ability to be developed as local, spoke fulfillment centers.

This direction isn’t without its hurdles though. Certain prospective spaces are not zoned appropriately or are not in an area that an influx of trucks can support. Even if it meets all the necessary developing criteria, the local government may oppose a warehouse opening in a residential area. For example, New Jersey recently approved guidelines after objections were raised by municipalities about warehouses setting up shop in suburban and rural areas.

Only time will tell if these smaller DCs will continue to crop up, but it’s a creative solution to an arguably important aspect of the supply chain. Now-empty office and retail buildings (an effect of COVID) are a viable space for these mini-warehouses and can serve the local areas effectively if the operator can appropriately coexist with residents. Even existing spaces that operated as retail outlets for in-store shopping are dipping their toes in integrating micro fulfillment to serve buy online, pickup in store processes, as well as last mile delivery.

Are these pint-sized distribution centers the future? Large distribution centers are still being constructed, but outside of low-vacancy metropolitan centers. All the signs point to yes, as eCommerce perpetuates every purchasing channel, and efficient technology continues to offer solutions to most barriers.

Electric and autonomous last-mile delivery vehicles

The fastest growing example of small-scale solutions has to be the explosion in electric last-mile delivery vehicles. A major concern of opening the aforementioned mini-DCs is the traffic, noise, and pollution a 53ft trailer (and even box trucks) bring to a local area. In many instances, the road system is simply not designed to handle vehicles of that size.

The solution? A fleet of electric vans and small trucks that can service the nearby area. A considerably smaller carbon footprint, minimal change to local traffic, and the ability to navigate the majority of side streets and communities.

The leader in the industry– Amazon, has already begun rolling out its own fleet of electric vans and is planning to implement them in over 100,000 cities in the U.S. by 2030. If history is anything to go by, the rest of the industry will follow shortly after, if not already.

Of course, owning and maintaining a fleet of electric vehicles is not a viable option for many distribution centers. Alternatively, the amount of last mile transportation providers offering scalable EV solutions has exploded recently, with a plethora of companies to partner with, some of which include:

Along with the electric delivery vehicle startups, traditional automakers have also begun developing electric versions of their fleet and truck lineups. Expect more electric delivery vehicles to appear as the auto industry shifts to EVs.

Further down the line, but not too far off in the future, autonomous delivery vehicles are certainly a possibility. Tesla and Volvo have been spearheading technology in recent years testing autonomous trucks in a multitude of road challenges. The technology is there, but to be considered “fully-autonomous” might be a few good years out. The larger idea of autonomous trucks is the enablement of real-time data, continuous movement, and a focus on sustainability (all aspects of industry 4.0). Expect to see further development in autonomous vehicles throughout 2023.

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Autonomous lift and reach trucks

Autonomous systems in the form of AGVs and AMRs have long existed in the material handling industry, but their uses are limited to specific situations, and typically are deployed in conjunction with picking operations. ASRS systems, those that pick inside a modular pallet rack, are another semi-autonomous system that has been integrated frequently, but the nature of its structure and operation leave it as a costly option typically reserved for very high throughput (same with shuttle systems like the Autostore). It seems like nothing can beat a simple forklift – until now.

Autonomous lift and reach trucks have been an idea in the hopper for a few years, but it wasn’t until DHL implemented them in one of their distribution centers that the technology was finally tested in a real-world environment. Essentially, there’s a bit of developing that has to happen to see these systems widespread, but it’s a quickly advancing segment that will most likely see great strides in improvement in 2023. Currently, the lift and reach trucks tested at the DHL facility came in slower than typical human-operated vehicles, and needed a team of engineers to run properly and fix errors. Relegated only to slow-moving SKUs in a monitored test area, the practice environment helped display any shortcomings the systems had, and once those issues were remedied, the lift trucks succeeded at completing the job they were designed to do.

As technology advances and trickles down from the major industry players, the idea of having autonomous lift and reach trucks is revolutionary. Most, if not all, distribution centers and warehouses have at least a few lift trucks. The best argument against using any form of automation (conveyor, ASRS, AGV, etc.) is that a lift truck is cheaper and can do it faster, depending on the environment it’s deployed in. With an autonomous lift truck, it’s a fusion from the best of both worlds. Keep the mobility and quickness of a lift truck, while benefiting from the stability and ROI-friendly use of automation.

AI solutions and machine learning (connecting disparate data)

As technology advances, the idea of industry 4.0 inches closer and closer to becoming a reality. The main driving factor is enabling the ability of automated systems to communicate and share information with each other. Seemingly disparate sources can connect and make decisions based on learned data, subsequent of human interaction.

With the sheer amount of both automated hardware and software available, being able to connect each resource AND having the systems take the most efficient decision represents a truly automated experience. This especially helps when considering companies that operate both manufacturing and distribution processes. Equashield, a medical device manufacturer, recently integrated their own proprietary AI and machine learning system and overcame obstacles related to manufacturing bottlenecks affecting fulfillment times:

“Along with our twelve-month stockpile of raw materials and highly efficient automated manufacturing line, we were able to overcome the backlogs, build up our inventory, and fulfill most of our US orders within 48 hours from the start of 2022,” Chief Commercial Officer Tal Brod said in an email.” (SupplyChainDive)

While a seemingly far-off concept for many distribution centers and warehouses, accessible options in the form of WMS and WCS integrations can collate data from various automation systems and present it in a way that suggests the best course of action. Implementing a platform like this now builds the foundation for machine learning later down the line and can provide an edge over the competition as an early adopter.

Supply and inventory resolutions and cleanup

With last year’s supply chain issues (especially at peak season), and all new ones that surfaced this year, many companies are re-evaluating their inventory management. One of the most prominent methods for retailers is strategically offloading unsold inventory during sales periods. Kohl’s has engaged in a “aggressive” campaign to cleanup product bloat by cancelling retail orders and marking down product prices substantially (SupplyChainDive). In the same vein, Best Buy proactively kept their inventory stock at nominal levels, boasting promotions throughout the year and diving into a new segment – device refurbishment.

For many distribution centers, inventory levels continue to be an issue. Either too much product is taking up precious space (largely due to consumers spending less as inflation rates soar) or there’s a deficit because of material restraints (for example: computer chips for the automotive industry).

For 2023, many companies have inventory levels on the docket as an action item to be managed more appropriately. The hope is that inflation will cool down, and specialized materials will become more available, but in the meantime, warehouses and DC’s will have to make do with their own resources. It’s a delicate balance to maintain and with a greatly fluctuating market, having the correct product quantity is key to running an efficient and lean distribution facility.

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What is an automation integrator, and how do they benefit me?

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An automation or material handling integrator is a B2B service that plans, engineers, and manages system projects for a distribution facility or warehouse. Systems can span from simple racking installations to complex distribution center layouts with multiple lines. Automation integrators work closely with clients to design a system that fits their facility limitations, handled product, operational goals and needs, budgetary considerations, and return-on-investment requirements

The need for integrators began as the gap between material handling equipment and automated systems became larger and larger. Before the mainstream use of automation within the industry, integrators provided a sales and installation channel for material handling equipment. As technology advanced and consumer behaviors necessitated highly automated distribution centers, material handling integrators focused more on engineering layouts for these new solutions rather than simply selling them. Century started as a conveyor service and repair company but evolved to serve customers with automation engineering needs.

Today, industrial automation is a bustling industry, abundant with new innovations and technological advancements for the world’s increasingly complex supply chain. A few of the leaders in the automation integration space include:

This may be common knowledge for many in the industry, but not as well-known are the benefits of using an integrator versus an internal engineering team or going direct to the manufacturer.

Benefits


Project Ease

One of the most difficult parts of any project is simply coordinating, planning, and managing it effectively. This difficulty can be exacerbated exponentially if this is the first implementation project, or if the team tasked with spearheading the project are not trained specifically in industrial automation systems.

Integrators soothe the pain of planning by managing all aspects of a project on their end. Typically, an integrator will be in communication with the lead engineer, facility manager, distribution manager, or operations director on your team. Essentially, whoever has the most knowledge of your distribution center’s operations and has a clear goal with what they want to achieve with automation.

To properly quote and plan a job, integrators ask many questions, complete many site visits, and meet extensively – all in an effort to make the project move forward as smoothly as possible.

Expert Engineering

Integrators employ a team of mechanical engineers to create solution layouts. The engineers are specially trained or have a background in industrial automation and understand how to achieve an efficient system via knowledge of the systems available and firsthand experience. Most integrators will have a few engineers present during facility planning visits and installation procedures to supervise the project process.

The advantage of using an integrator is gaining access to the experience of its engineering team. After hundreds of automation projects, an integrator has distinct know-how in navigating projects, industry best practices, and intimate knowledge of cutting-edge automation solutions being offered in the marketplace. The focused approach to industrial engineering in the pursuit of efficiency is a constant throughout every integration project, whereas an internal team or singular consultant may have only a holistic idea of automation engineering.

Vendor Partnerships

Integrators, especially well-established ones, will have a sizeable network of partnerships with automation machinery manufacturers, material handling equipment vendors, control houses, software platform providers, and mechanical and electrical installers, among others. Leveraging these partnerships allow integrators specialty pricing, shorter equipment lead times, and access to valuable automation resources.

It’s in an integrator’s interest to make and maintain vendor partnerships, as many manufacturers primarily sell their automation systems to integrators, and integrators receive projects to engineer those systems (think of “if you scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours”). This benefits the end user going through an integrator, as established partnerships place a priority on integrator projects and requests, as well as receiving the aforementioned vendor perks.

If there’s a specific system that you’d like to use in your warehouse, any integrator will work hard to ensure it can be utilized effectively. But, if the engineering doesn’t work in its favor, an integrator can recommend alternative systems that closely match the function of what was originally proposed. This extends to retrofits and legacy systems.

automation integrator infographic

Singular Source

With an integration, all aspects of your facility automation project flow through a single source. Depending on the size of your project, your main contact will typically be a sales engineer, and once a proposal is signed, a project manager and senior engineer will be tasked with your account. If the project warrants, an entire team of engineers may be dispatched to the facility location to oversee installation and start-up procedures.

An integrator will offer concise and transparent communication during every step of the implementation. This also includes regulatory guidance across all mechanical, electrical, and compressed air installations, as well as coordinating the proper building permits and safety standards. With the experience of working on job after job, all these standards are commonplace across integrators and come second nature when managing a new project.

Sparing yourself the headache of wrangling together the nitty-gritty of your automation project might be worth the cost of entry with an integrator alone, but still, the value of employing one increases the closer you look.

System Support and Service

While not as common among integrators as some of the other points, many employ an aftersales department dedicated to maintaining your turnkey system with parts and repair servicing. System downtime is a massive drain on time and money, and integrators understand that the majority of automation solutions are running nonstop. If even one is malfunctioning, the entire process comes to a screeching halt.

Integrators actively want to avoid this situation at all costs, so an ancillary service is offered to keep a stock of spare parts on hand, so any broken components can be replaced right away. When a project is completed, an integrator will create a log of recommended parts to have in a storage room within your distribution center. This can range from common items like motors, belts, sensors, fluids, and more, to entire automation machines that may be installed later. As durable as some of these machines are, they are still machines and need proper maintenance to operate flawlessly.

Along with spare parts, integrators may offer a preventative maintenance plan for your system. Based on your solution requirements, a service technician can be dispatched to your location to administer routine repairs and recommend when certain parts should be swapped out for newer components.

In the event of an emergency, some integrators (like Century!) have the capability to send a technician out to remedy the issue. If it’s something that can be fixed remotely, like a push-stop button reset, some integrators (again, like Century!) have a 24/7 support line that can securely VPN into a WMS/WCS system and troubleshoot the issue live.

5 inexpensive system solutions for automating your warehouse

inexpensive automation system solutions blog header image

When the topic of integrating automation comes up, many warehouses are quick to say “too expensive”, and then proceed to purchase another forklift for $100,000.

Automation systems have advanced to the point that many solutions can be deployed inexpensively as a single addition, and are flexible enough to integrate with existing systems. The material handling industry itself has exploded in recent years, with hundreds of new automation solutions being developed and utilized.

With new innovations, each use case becomes more specific, ensuring that there’s a solution out there that fits your budget and functional needs. The difficult part is selecting the system that provides the most bang for your buck.

Century Conveyor Systems has operated through decades of automation developments and understands which systems are the ideal solution to your distribution needs, keeping in mind the importance of budgetary restrictions.

 Here are our recommendations for relatively inexpensive automation systems.

Palletizing Systems

Manually building a pallet can be a pain, and the impreciseness in doing so can lead to carton damage and unstable pallets. If your warehouse has experienced a recent increase in demand, manual pallet building may not be able to keep up, leading to jams and packages waiting to be palletized.

Deploying a single robotic arm in a cell can solve this issue, and far outpace anything an operator could do. In conjunction with a robotic arm, pallets can then be moved to a stretch-wrapper machine (another inexpensive solution). What if your facility only breaks, not builds pallets? Robotic arms can complete depalletizing operations as well.

The functionality doesn’t end there, though. The end-of-arm tooling can be swapped out for different end-of-line handling functions. Some include, but are not limited to:

  • Case forming and erecting
  • Carton sortation
  • Order packing

The bulk of the cost associated with using a robotic arm comes from the initial purchase and installation. Integrating one arm would cost a bit north of $100,000, and can get more costly as accessories are added, but a return on investment of a year and a half should be expected. Keep in mind that some robotic arm manufacturers offer leasing agreements, which can help with procuring a system and spreading out associated costs.

Ergonomic Picking

Enabling easy handling of products for your picking operations can make a substantial difference when a storage module isn’t just a static structure. Re-engineering how your warehouse staff store and retrieve items can decrease the time it takes for product to be processed, and offers a much more stable alternative to typical picking operations.

Canted gravity racks utilize skate wheel sections to make retrieval easy. Employees can then place cartons on an infeed conveyor to be staged or moved to downstream operations. Product can then be re-slotted in the racks, maintaining a continuous flow. Various storage modules can be customized precisely to the specifications of the warehouse, and how the product is processed, but the general idea of primarily using gravity as opposed to photo eyes and motors keeps projects inexpensive for these solutions.

Century recently completed a system project that utilized effective picking modules, with care taken with respect to employee ergonomics and handling. This project shows that, despite the size of the warehouse and its limitations, automation can successfully be integrated.

Warehouse Management System

Before integrating any other solution, a WMS should be considered. Even without automation tied into a WMS (through a WCS), the visibility and data it provides is extremely valuable. From receiving, picking, processing, shipping, tracking, and reporting – every product touchpoint is recorded and made visible for operators to view.

WMS platforms vary differently in price and functionality, and most operate on a monthly payment plan or an annual licensure. Expect to spend $1,500 – $4,500 per month (average of around $35,000 yearly). Some WMS providers have additional licenses for extra users, which can average under $1000 each.

While not a massively cheap solution, the reporting of every action in your distribution center grants a powerful understanding of its performance and daily operations. Use that knowledge to make decisions on future warehouse process improvements and demand forecasting.

EOL Loading Systems

Depending on your end-of-line operations, loading can quickly become an area of blockage if manual operations are still being used, or if your output exceeds that of what can be reasonably loaded in the time allotted. Slow loading can contribute to downstream jams, product damage, inefficient placement, as well as unhappy truckers.

If your facility employees a few operators to hand load trucks, enable automation systems to make their job easier and faster. Extendable conveyors are a must-have when loading. Non-powered skatewheel extendables on casters can be manually adjusted to accommodate for variable loading positions, and keeps a congruent line of packages to the operator. These types of mobile conveyors are very common, and can be purchased inexpensively (especially when used). Expect to spend a few thousand.

For a more automated system, a powered extendable can be deployed, which provides operator controls to extend into and retract out of a trailer. The belt is powered, and can use sensors to properly gap products as they are being loaded. Expect to spend considerably more on a powered extendable. Depending on the manufacturer and options added, the range can vary between $50,000-$125,000.

Single Robotic Deployment

The most common warehouse robots are categorized into two applications. Automated Guided Vehicles (AGV) and Autonomous Mobile Vehicles (AMR).

AGVs and AMRs both provide a multitude of functions, typically moving items from one area of the facility to another, absent of human interaction. The difference between the two is in the way it senses the environment. AGVs move by using a sensor that follows a set path (typically a form of sticker or tape on the ground). AMRs move by sensing objects around them and learning an optimal path. In this sense, both have applications that one or the other is better suited to.

Larger distribution centers that employ AGVS and AMRS will typically have a fleet of them, which typically isn’t an inexpensive investment. The real savings come in based on what’s being deprecated in lieu of a warehouse robot. Deploying a single AGV or AMR to replace a new forklift (and the labor needed to operate it) can make a quick return on investment.

Most AGV and AMR systems start around $30,000 and trend upwards the larger and more advanced they get. Deploying a single robot in your warehouse to move pallets or oversized items (non-conveyable) makes the most sense in a use case. If you’re looking to complete picking or fulfillment operations, a few more robots would have to be deployed in order to match the fulfillment speed of the operators (3 robots per picker on average).

Consider the layout and the complexity of your operations. If it’s a relatively simple A to B task that is done on a recurring basis, an AGV or AMR might be a likely alternative for those not looking to fully automate. For example, taking completed pallets from a palletizing area to an end-of-line loading operation. An AGV or AMR can be programmed to follow the same route every day, sans the need for a lift truck and operator.

Capital Candy

Capital Candy Case Study Header Image
Capital Candy Case Study Header Image

Background

Capital Candy’s history dates to 1938, when a couple from Montpelier, Vermont, opened a penny candy operation from their home. Over time, the operation offered new product lines, became incorporated and expanded into new territories.

Today, Capital Candy operates six days a week, 24 hours a day to provide grocery and convenience store products to 3,000 customers across six states. “We pick, pack and deliver 55,000 packages a week. Our trucks make 33 trips every night,” says Jim Thibeault, Operations Manager.

The operation houses mostly perishable items, such as dry grocery products, frozen and refrigerated foods, and non-food items, such as tobacco products. As the demand and variety of SKUs increased in the tobacco category, Capital Candy decided to design a new addition to house all tobacco-related products. But to make room for an ever-growing and ever-changing line of inventory, the operation required optimal storage, picking and replenishment solutions. 

Challenge

Growth is great for business, but it can put a squeeze on space at the warehouse—which is exactly what happened at the Capital Candy operation.

“We’ve been fortunate to have increased sales every year for the past 15 years. But when COVID hit, many restaurants shut down, and convenience stores got very busy, which meant our SKUs had to increase too,” says Jim. “At one point, we were over 140% full in two regions of our warehouse. We had to do something.”

Capital Candy had two options: Find another warehouse and move, or build onto the existing facility in Barre, Vermont, where the operation had serviced customers for nearly 50 years. Capital Candy chose option two and got approval from the town for a 60- by 100-foot addition measuring 26 feet high to the warehouse.

Goals

  • Maximize pick areas for fast movers
  • Deploy high-density storage for slow movers

System Specifications

  • 27-bay UNEX SpanTrack Wheel Bed
  • 196 slot, 2 bay UNEX SpeedCell
  • UNEX Gravity Conveyor
  • 287 sq. ft. steel work platform

Integration

Century Conveyor Systems utilized UNEX conveyor and equipment to integrate flawlessly with the exisiting UNEX roller rack, shelf track, and roller bed. Century installed 27 bays of SpanTrack Wheel Bed with four levels in each bay or 108 total levels of carton flow. 

“The Wheel Beds are great because they make picking and replenishing easy.  It will never be hard for them to re-slot the flow rack again,” says Dave Mydlowski; senior engineer from Century, who worked with Capital Candy and UNEX to design and implement carton flow solutions at the site. “And the quality of the product is excellent, durable, reliable.”

SpanTrack Wheel Beds drop easily into structures to create the ultimate flow rack system for full-case and each-case picking. The system is highly flexible, sturdy and provides carton flow for products of various sizes and weights. And because SpanTrack Wheel Beds provide 300% more product contact than plastic wheel rails, hang-ups are eliminated.

“With the new solution, efficiency was up immediately on day one—greater pick density, fewer steps, less climbing and better product storage,” says Jim.

Century also added two bays of SpeedCell and Gravity Conveyor in both downstairs and upstairs pick areas. SpeedCell provides high-density storage and can compress 200 feet of rack or shelving into 40 feet of highly organized space. More pick facings and greater SKU density mean less travel time and faster picks and restocking.

Results

The Wheel Beds allowed Capital Candy to store 3,600 more cases of product in the location and enabled the operation to add 900 new items with room to spare. The density of the pick also reduced the number of pickers needed in the tobacco area. The same picks are now being done by 1.5 fewer pickers, which is a huge savings for Capital Candy and a win for workers too. Pickers are paid by the number of items they pick. And because the pick area is so dense, pickers can pick more items faster.

By implementing SpeedCell, Capital Candy was able to slot 196 slower-moving items into two eight-foot bays with each picking, saving the operation about 72 feet of shelf space. “We’ve used many UNEX solutions, but this was the first time using SpeedCell, and our intention is to add it to other areas of the operation,” says Jim. “The product has maximized our space, and it’s been a hit with pickers, stockers and our purchasing department.”

Why conveyors are the optimal automation solution for distribution centers

process of automating your warehouse 1

When it comes to increasing the efficiency of your distribution center, few solutions match the benefits of an automation system. But, therein lies the question of WHICH automation system. Between all the advances in material handling tech and how specialized automation has become, it can be a massive undertaking in finding the right system for your DC.

One solution does maintain a consistent presence in today’s modern distribution center- conveyors. Throughout the years, conveyor systems have been a staple automation choice for quick and stable movement of goods. The reason for its proliferation? Simplicity.  

At its core, a conveyor system is a continuously moving platform that transports an item from one location to another. Of course, various other systems can be integrated into a conveyor, and technological advancements have brought modern conveyors a long way from its first inception, but conveyors are a classic case of “if it works, don’t change it”.

This testament holds true today, even in the ever-changing industrial automation market. Conveyors are widely used for many applications and can be scaled exactly to what’s needed. Giants like Amazon, even with their fleet of proprietary robots, utilize conveyors in their many distribution centers. On the other end of the scale, small distribution centers can see positive benefits from just a single line.

For any distribution center looking to automate, a conveyor system has a few core functions that should place it in the running for serious consideration:

  • Rapid, Continuous Movement
  • Durability
  • Integration Capable
  • Accurate Distribution
  • Tailored Engineering

Let’s go through each:

Rapid, Continuous Movement

The #1 benefit of a conveyor system over anything else is its ability to quickly transport a continuous line of product across a distribution center. Conveyor systems can complete an array of material handling processes, including but not limited to:

  • Picking
  • Case forming and sealing
  • Print and apply
  • Palletizing and depalletizing
  • Sortation and distribution
  • EOL loading
  • WCS and WMS functions

….all within one singular system. This keeps items moving to their destination in the shortest time possible, with little manual interaction.

Conveyors are ideal for distribution centers that process a large amount of orders per day. In Century’s experience, a good starting throughput rate to justify the power of a conveyor system hovers around 1,000 cartons shipped a day. Some high-output operations, like those moving polybags, or crossdocking, can see daily output reach past 40,000 cartons shipped. If that’s the rate you’re looking to achieve at your distribution center, keep on reading.

Durability

Conveyors are famously durable, with the average lifespan typically hovering around 25 years. With routine maintenance, conveyors are extremely reliable, provided that the system is functioning as intended.

Aside from the initial startup, conveyors are extremely self-sufficient. A distribution center won’t have to hire a specific engineer to operate the system as some other solutions might require. Employees can be easily trained to work with the conveyor safely and efficiently. Maintenance can be completed by a conveyor service partner (like us!), or an internal repairman on-site with minimal downtime. In some situations, a manufacturer or servicer can remotely VPN into the controls platform of the conveyor and troubleshoot errors on the fly, without ever having to send a specialized technician.

The difference between a conveyor and any other solution is in its simplicity. AGVs, AMRs, ASRS’, and other robotic solutions heavily rely on the environment, and its programmed abilities. All its functions are contained within one singular system, whereas a conveyor combines multiple systems into a linear flow.

Conveyors are designed to be able to be easily repaired, while robotic systems are more advanced and may require a specialist. To use an analogy, imagine working on a naturally aspired vehicle made in 2002, vs. an electric car produced in 2022. The 2002 vehicle is much more accessible to repair and maintain, while the electric car has to be brought to the manufacturer to update systems and provide advanced high-voltage service. This isn’t to say that conveyors are “low-tech”, but not as complex in how it functions as some other systems.

Integration Capable

Conveyor systems are plenty customizable and have the ability to slot in with automation hardware and software with relative ease. It’s entirely feasible to install a conveyor system, and then implement additional systems afterward once it’s needed, or when the budget can be allocated.

Typically, a conveyor system can integrate most solutions, even robotics. If your distribution center has complex operations and a variety of different automation is used, for the most part, a conveyor system can infeed or outfeed to the machines that are operating.

conveyor for distribution center blog- integration example image

For example, a large distribution center has a conveyor system but wants to integrate a carton sealer after packing operations. Instead of having to remove an old system and re-install a new one, a section of the conveyor is torn out, and the case sealer is installed in its place.

In terms of software, depending on the manufacturer, a Warehouse Control System application can be implemented into your WMS. This enables expanded functionality, reporting, data collection, tracking, and error analysis. Century uses a proprietary platform called ConveyorWorks, but there exist plenty of other HMI software options.

For even MORE capabilities, real-time reporting software exists as a Human Machine Interface (HMI).

Essentially, an HMI will collate and report data from your systems on the fly and construct a process diagram detailing all events that are happening. Each screen in the program is specifically labeled and personalized for your facility. The 3D images, drawn to scale, will allow more accuracy in finding a problem in your system. Along with live statuses of your system, an alarm log, statistics page, and system information are provided.

Finishing no logo

If you’re thinking about software and hardware additions to a conveyor line, rest assured, there are plenty of effective solutions to customize your system precisely for your needs and goals.

Accurate Distribution

Divert conveyor systems are high-output machines that use a variety of methods to move product from one line to an outfeeding line. Downstream from printing and labeling solutions, before entering a divert section, the box passes through a scan tower and the shipping barcode is read. This tells the conveyor where to divert the box. If any packages go unread, or an error happens, they’ll typically be recirculated or put off onto a pick line for re-processing.

The only other solution that can match the throughput and divert rate of this type of conveyor are certain shuttle systems (which are more for picking rather than distribution). Enabling this sort of automation completes processing exponentially quicker than manual operations, and typically possesses a 1% error rate- impressively low

The main difference with sortation conveyors is the method of how the product is handled. Depending on the size of the carton, fragility, and direction it needs to be facing- a multitude of diverting functions are used.

Tailored Engineering

When a turnkey solution like a conveyor system is engineered for a distribution center, the conveyor system is designed specifically for your warehouse. While many solutions exist, they may follow more of a “one size fits all” approach. In reality, every distribution center varies drastically from one to another, and a general automation solution that works for some, may not work for others.

Conveyors are unique in the sense that they can be scaled precisely to what’s needed. Want to simply move cartons from one area to another? A straight section of powered conveyor would probably work out just fine. Need to fulfill orders and divert to multiple EOL loading bays? No problem.

In comparison to robotic fulfillment, the answer would be to deploy another AGV/AMR system to meet demand. It’ll most likely perform as needed, but it won’t be as carefully executed as a well-engineered conveyor system.


If your distribution center is researching automation that is flexible, durable, and rapid, consider how a conveyor could fit into your warehouse space and current operations. Century Conveyor Systems has been engineering efficient conveyor systems for over 40 years, and we’re more than capable to tackle your material handling automation needs.

How it’s done: The process of automating your distribution warehouse

process of automating your warehouse century conveyor systems blog header
process of automating your warehouse

Starting on a new warehouse automation project can be a complex process. From allocating the necessary funds to corroborating with key team members, it’s not unusual for automation projects to take months to approve before any work is even completed.

You may be in the very early stages of ideation and development and are doing actively doing research on specific systems or solutions. Just a wild guess if you’re currently reading this.

Luckily, you’re in the right place. Century Conveyor Systems has completed thousands of warehouse automation projects, and acutely understands this deliberation phase. Careful planning, goal-setting, and defining the scope of your project is paramount at this stage.

You may already have all those points identified, and if so, great! Simply getting started is half the battle.

But now that you’re close to your automation system becoming a reality, you may ask yourself; “How does a warehouse automation project process typically unfold anyway?”

To preface, no two warehouses are the same. Each system is uniquely engineered to fit the warehouse’s size, products handled, functions, and operations. A specific project timeline is created for each and can vary drastically.

The process described in this article is generally what we’ve experienced across all our projects.

  • Initial Connection
  • Site Visit
  • Drawings
  • Approval and Sourcing
  • Equipment Shipping
  • Installation
  • Controls Integration
  • Final Testing
  • Launch
  • Ongoing Service and Support
Solution Process LinkedIn

Initial Connection

The very first step is to source and select a material handling integrator. This can almost be an entire process in itself, as integrators can vary by size, what industry they serve, what systems they engineer for, etc. Many companies will submit a proposal for integrators to bid for or connect with a few choice ones and assess which would be the best fit.

Regardless of the method you’re using to source your automation vendor, an initial conversation would outline the basics of your current warehouse setup, specifics about the products being handled, and what solutions you’d like to see implemented. Other questions may include project timing, previous experience with automation, and whether the project is funded or not (a big one).

The representative may send you an information sheet to fill out. This sheet may have more specific information, like carton minimum and maximum, warehouse ambient temperatures, current voltages, and more.

One of the most important pieces of information is a current warehouse drawing. This blueprint (a CAD diagram) conveys a wealth of information to the integrator. If you’re in this stage, make sure you have a drawing on hand to share.

Once enough questions have been answered, another call with a project manager or sales engineer may occur. This will be your main contact point throughout the entirety of the project and will share preliminary pricing and project information with you.

Site Visit

To accurately engineer, design, and price an automation system, a site visit is required to see the current state of the warehouse. This is to observe how day-to-day operations play out, take measurements or pictures, and view equipment in person. Typically, a project manager and a lead engineer will be the individuals who travel to your facility.

A site visit is an excellent time to walk the warehouse floor and follow the process stream of your operations, pointing out functions and commenting on what updates you’d like to see as part of the project. This will enable the integrator party to ask specific questions or take notes.

The more answers that are provided at the start of the project, the less time it takes to approve on-site drawings.

Once a site visit is completed, your integrator can start developing engineering drawings for the future system.

Drawings

A system drawing is a CAD design document that shows a top-down view of your entire warehouse, complete with diagrams of where automation systems will be installed. Diagrams will label the type of system being used, provide measurements, and list product flow information.

Here’s what a common system drawing looks like:

warehouse automation process diagram

If needed, certain sections can be expanded upon as an addendum to the full system drawing:

warehouse conveyor detail diagram

A system drawing is a guiding document for the entirety of the project, so it’s vitally important that it reflects the goals, limitations, and wants of your warehouse. This may mean that multiple rounds of revisions on the drawing may take place (Century’s record is 97 rounds!) before a design is settled on.

Approval and Sourcing

Once the drawing is finalized, a proposal will be created by the integrator, detailing all aspects of the project.

This may include:

  • The final drawing
  • A description of how the new system will operate
  • Carton, tote, and pallet measurements
  • Equipment used and specifications
  • Installation details
  • Schedules and timelines
  • Pricing information
  • Agreement terms

After you review and approve of the quote, the process of making your system a reality begins. The automation equipment selected in the proposal will be sourced and ordered, coordinated by the project manager.

Equipment Shipping

Typically, the longest part of your automation project is waiting for your equipment to be manufactured and shipped to you. Depending on the size of your system and what’s ordered, this can take anywhere from 8 to 24 weeks (sometimes longer depending on demand).

As your equipment is delivered to your warehouse, it’ll be stored off to the side so that it doesn’t interfere with your daily operations.

Once all the equipment has been delivered, the installation phase of the project can start.

Installation

Unless you’re using your own installation team, your integrator will send out a project manager and a lead engineer along with the installation team to supervise. Using the drawings, the mechanical equipment will be gradually installed. This may include tearing out older systems or equipment to make room for the updates.

In Century’s experience, an average system will take about a week to mechanically install. Once all the equipment is in place, the electrical installation team will start their work. Their job centers around providing power to all automation, and connecting the necessary systems together with the provided electrical hardware and voltages.

Controls Integration

Last but definitely not least, panels are programmed and installed to enable system control functionality. Panels are fabricated according to the systems used and provide essential operations.

This allows operators to control the newly installed system, from simple emergency stop buttons to capturing shipping manifest information in a database.

Along with your system controls, this is the phase of the project when WMS, WCS, and ERP platforms are developed and integrated into your system. Whatever warehouse software you have (or are implementing) will be linked with the automation and a testing phase will begin.

Final Testing

Validation and testing of your automation system is the final phase of the project. Once all components are installed and in working order, various pressure tests will be done to ensure everything is working as intended.

Typically, testing is a two-week period so the system gets a chance to run for a prolonged period of time. Depending on the solution and your integration contract, training can be held for any employees that work with the system. Through this, any errors can be corrected, and fine-tuning can be done so that your product flow is consistent and reliable.

Launch

Once testing and training is complete, the system is ready. Being turnkey, this means you can start it as soon as you want. Any materials left over from the project (crating, waste, old equipment) are removed from your facility and disposed of accordingly.

At this point, the project is considered complete.

Ongoing Service and Support

Depending on the capabilities of your integrator, many offer support services for your system once it’s been installed.

This may come in the form of:

  • Preventative maintenance agreements
  • Spare parts ordering
  • Emergency repair service
  • VPN troubleshooting hotline

Even once the project is finished, most integrators will maintain communication with you to make sure your system is always running smoothly. Century provides all of the above support services for conveyors, but keep in mind that other integrators that have a maintenance department might only support specific systems.

Congratulations! You are now the proud owner of an efficient and powerful automation system. The process may seem complex when seeing it step-by-step, but any integrator worth its salt can expertly coordinate and manage your warehouse project efficiently. Looking for exactly that? We’ve been integrating automation for over 40 years and are experts at taking your facility to the next level. Check out our case studies to get an idea of our experience.

How to win production and manufacturing facility optimization with EOL automation

Achieve process optimization with end of line automation

If you’re reading this, you’re most likely researching solutions to optimize your production plant for continuous improvement efforts. As the name implies, continuous improvement is continuous-it’s an ongoing effort to make your manufacturing facility a production powerhouse.

But consider this. Once the product is made, improvements simply don’t stop. End-of-line post-production optimizations can make or break the overall efficiency of a plant. A product can be manufactured perfectly, but if it’s not getting to your customers effectively, then your optimizations are a moot point. Flexible automation in the form of post-production systems like conveyors, warehouse robots, pick modules, palletizing arms, and more can revolutionize your end-of-line operations and benefit the entirety of your manufacturing lines.

If downstream processes haven’t been something you’ve looked at optimizing, or are currently searching for solutions, then keep reading. As a top post-production automation integrator for over 40 years; Century Conveyor Systems has extensive experience in implementing post-production systems for manufacturers who want the best out of their facility. Here’s a case study for a system we engineered for F. Schumacher Co.

Define Production vs Post-Production

Analyze and understand the transition your process line takes from production to post-production. Once the product is finished, where does it go? Is it packaged and palletized, then stored? Or, are individual items stored in a picking module for later fulfillment?

Regardless of your current operations, output in this transitory section should be engineered consistently. Overproduction is a very real source of waste (a tenet of lean manufacturing), and exceeding capacity when demand ebbs and flows, or when distribution systems can’t match production signifies an area of plant optimization.

If you notice this discrepancy, understand that post-production automation can be fine-tuned to keep items moving steadily. Modern conveyor systems can be engineered on the fly to output at certain speeds. Doing so can keep items moving to an automatic palletizer (and stretch wrap) for storage, or continue to EOL operations- instead of a static staging area that has to be manually transported and stored.

Product Handling Optimization

Depending on what your plant produces, the speed benefits of a conveyor or palletizing robot may seem unnecessary if it’s not a high-demand product, or if it’s a non-conveyable (oversized) item.

The secondary benefit of automation is the elimination of manual operations. While the output rate might not be feasible for your manufacturing plant, the cost-savings, stability, and flexibility may provide an effective optimization point.

Installing an automated system can be a significant upfront cost, but the long-term savings from removing the prior material handling processes (like forklifts, associated labor, and manual operations), can certainly result in a positive return on investment.

Material handling integrators or your internal team of plant managers and engineers can take advantage of the dynamic nature of automation systems. Don’t have the warehouse space or budget to install a conveyor system? Consider deploying an AGV or AMR to automatically transport pallets, cartons, or large items to where it needs to be. These automated warehouse robots are typically battery-operated, come in various sizes, and use sensors to navigate.

Regardless of the automation solution used, product handling optimization can be achieved via a multitude of specialized systems.

Output (Current and Planned)

Consider what products your plant currently manufactures. What are the fluctuations in demand? Is one specific product line experiencing an increase in sales? It’s important to understand the changes in product output according to your customer base.

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Implementing post-production automation doesn’t have to be a complete overhaul of your current EOL process. Gradual automation integration is absolutely an option, and adding a system where needed is an excellent avenue for optimization without breaking the bank. This helps avoid bottlenecks between production and distribution.

Coordinate with your R&D and purchasing department. If a new product is being conceptualized, what’s the estimated sales forecast for once it’s been launched? You may have multiple production lines in your plant, but different output rates depending on what’s being manufactured. In this case, consider automation for the top-producing line, then build upon the others once more budget can be allocated.

Storage or Processing?

Post-production automation isn’t just limited to distribution operations. Storage modules can be automated as well, for picking and putting.

An ASRS (automated storage and retrieval system) is a racking structure that employs a track-guided crane to store and retrieve (as the name suggests) pallets to and from rack compartments. A single employee can command the crane to pick a specific pallet from the terminal, which it will deposit in a receptacle that can link up with an in-feeding conveyor, or a staging area for transport.

Not every plant may have enough in-and-out going pallets to justify an ASRS. In the event that your manufacturing facility has a large catalog of products it creates, a shuttle system operates much the same, but on a SKU scale. Shuttle systems employ automated platforms that navigate within a racking structure to collect items for order fulfillment. Manufacturers that have large items probably won’t consider a shuttle system, but for a facility that has many different product variants, a shuttle system can be a powerful asset.

Interested in an ASRS or shuttle system? Read more about their benefits and functions on our Pick Modules and Storage Systems page.

Communication

As cliché as it sounds, communication is key in a manufacturing plant, yet, it’s something that’s often overlooked. Workers across your entire plant should be acutely aware of alerts that directly impact their section. Communication is not just simply speaking to one another, but as a transom of information. Many downtime situations or bottlenecks can be avoided by maximizing visibility between production and post-production.

Equipping warehouse workers with wearable technology like tablets, headsets, and scanners can keep constant communication channels open. Combine these terminals with a WMS (warehouse management system), and workers can see operating schedules, machine status, pending orders, and more from a single platform.

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You may already have a management system in place, but you can increase visibility even further by implementing system-specific WCS (warehouse control systems) platforms.

For example, a production machine has been taken offline for maintenance. A worker downstream can then access the WCS portal and adjust the settings on an in-feeding conveyor system remotely to accommodate the reduced rate of production.

Overall Efficiency

Your post-production process doesn’t live in a bubble separate from manufacturing. Optimizing downstream systems impacts overall efficiency criteria, like:

  • Order cycle time
  • Correct product yield
  • Changeover time
  • On time and full

Returns can also be another gauging point, but not every production facility manages them. Depending on what your plant does with returns, integrating a re-commerce process can significantly decrease the amount of time it takes to exchange the product and fulfill the new order. If you work with a considerable number of returns, ensure a proper order management system is in place to keep track of anything that’s sent back.

For reporting and continuous improvement efforts, the points listed above will naturally see a positive impact when a post-production automation system is integrated. Consider how much salt you place in these numbers and how they dictate your next improvement efforts. If practicing lean implementations, many of the same methods transfer over to the post-production stage. We’ve written previously on Kaizen and Lean Six Sigma and how they can be achieved with automation.

Reliability

An obvious point, but important to share. Removing legacy systems or “how it’s always been done” mindsets can pave the way for newer, modern automation that’ll experience significantly less downtime.

It may be helpful to meet with your maintenance team and take down their thoughts. They’ll know which machines are close to the end of their life and which ones experience the most downtime. If you’re considering a gradual post-production automation approach, start with the systems that are outdated or cause the most mechanical problems.

In summary:

While most process improvements are done to manufacturing systems, there are plenty of impactful optimizations that can be made post-production.

Select a system that seamlessly bridges the transition from production to post-production, can rapidly process finished goods, and do so in a reliable and efficient manner. Keep in mind how flexible you’d want the system to be when reacting to upstream developments. Above all, widen the lens on your warehouse visibility. Integrating warehouse management systems and easy communication pathways enables a dynamic, living production plant that can pivot effortlessly.