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.

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.

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

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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.

Why conveyors are the optimal automation solution for distribution centers

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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.

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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.

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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

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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.


Your Guide to Post-Production Conveyor Types

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What is a conveyor?

Conveyor systems are a powerful material handling solution, offering a continuously moving platform to transport items quickly completing processing, sortation, and distribution. Conveyors typically use belts or rollers to move cartons or pallets, powered by motors, or by Earth’s gravity.

There exists a vast number of conveyor types, each specifically designed to handle certain materials or goods, spanning across a number of industries. For the purpose of this guide, we’ll be focusing on post-production conveyors, typically used in warehouses for distribution, and commonly seen moving cartons, totes, polybags, mail parcels, drums

Each warehouse has a specially engineered layout, consisting of a variety of conveyor sections, depending on function.

A few benefits of conveyors include:

  • Durable and reliable, a well-maintained system can last over 20 years
  • Various solutions can be added to a conveyor line to increase automation
  • Conveyors offer the quickest form of transportation across a facility
  • Split and full case order handling ability

Interested in a conveyor system for your facility?

Century Conveyor Systems has over 40 years of conveyor experience- planning, engineering, installing, and repairing post-production conveyor systems. Over the years, we’ve integrated systems ranging from a single line, to complex, multi-level operations. Want to discuss the goals you’d like to accomplish with a conveyor system? Send us a message to schedule a consultation.


What are the different types of conveyor?

Live Roller

The most widely used conveyor, live roller sections are powered by a motor. Instead of belts, live roller utilizes individual roller pins to transport product.

Gravity

As the name implies, gravity conveyors are not powered by any sort of motor, but simply by gravity. These conveyors are typically used in packing lines, divert lines, extendables, or EOL operations.

Belt-Over

Another common conveyor application, belt-overs utilize belts wrapped over the slider or roller beds. This allows a more stable approach to conveyance, especially for small polybags and parcels. Inclines, declines, and gapping are advantages belt-overs have over live-rollers.

Modular Belt

Operating in the same way as a belt-over section, modular belts are different when it comes to the material the belt is constructed of. Instead of vulcanized rubber, modular belts are plastic, and interlock with each other to accomplish different applications (like merging, sorting, descrambling, etc.).

Zero and Minimum Pressure

These accumulation conveyors are EOL solutions that utilize advanced sensor setups to provide gapping between items. This is to avoid products touching and causing damage and is used in situations where fragile items are conveyed.

Zero pressure indicates a line that will not let products touch each other

Minimum pressure indicates a line that will slow products down so they lightly touch each other.

Extendable

Extendables are telescoping conveyors that can be adjusted in specific situations, such as loading a truck or providing a temporary line. These solutions can come in flexible gravity-powered applications, using skatewheels to move product or as a powered outfeeding unit (like an Adjustoveyor).

Spiral

A spiral conveyor is named as such because it utilizes a gradual incline curve upwards in a spiral structure, to infeed to above-ground operations. Spirals are compact solutions to convey products to additional levels.

What are the different types of sortation conveyors?


Tilt-tray

Tilt-tray sortation uses order consolidation chutes to sort items in a batch-pick environment. Cartons are scanned before being inducted onto a tilt-tray carousel, where it will sit on a moving platform until it reaches its destination chute.  The tray will tilt either left or right depending on where it’s being sorted and slide down a chute onto a conveyor to be loaded.

Tilt-tray applications are effective for high-speed sortation.

Cross-belt

Functioning similar to the tilt-tray, cross-belt sortation differs by using bi-directional belts to divert items into destination chutes. Packages are inducted onto the cross-belt conveyor carousel and sorted accordingly. Each belt section can hold one package, but multiple belt sections can be combined and used in tandem to divert larger items.

Narrow-belt

A series of narrow belts, each with its own take-up, span the length of the conveyor. High friction divert wheels rise between the belts, diverting product to its destination.

Narrow belts are typically used for larger, heavier packages that need heavy-duty forms of sortation. Smaller packages would not be ideal for this application, as they would fall in-between the belting segments.

Shoe Sorter

High-speed sorter utilizing aluminum slats that have plastic shoes that slide across them to divert cartons either left or right (bi-directional) to required sort destinations.

The advantage this provides over the similar functions of the tilt-tray is that the shoe is incorporated as part of the central induction conveyor. This eliminates the need for a separate sortation application, like the aforementioned tilt-tray carousel.

Split-tray Sorter

Sometimes also referred to as a bomb-bay sorter, dual split tray sorters have the ability to sort two smaller items within the same tray, at higher throughput speeds.

Split-tray sections have a bottom platform that opens to drop items gently into chutes, totes, or cartons below. This method is space-saving, as the item discharge area drops below vs being conveyed.

Swivel Wheel Sorter

Swivel wheel sorters utilize a platform of omni-directional rollers to divert items quickly. When a product reaches the divert, the wheels orientate to direct the item to its destination. This sortation method works best for systems that have a conveyor junction, rather than a gradual merge or curve.

Push-tray Sorter

A high-speed sorter with tray segments utilizing a positive divert to gently push items or polybags off the tray and slide them into a sortation chute.

What are the different types of pallet conveyors?


Pallet Drag Chain

These conveyor types support pallets and oversized loads. The item to be conveyed is placed on a platform that is connected to a chain. The chain is then activated and drags the platform along a conveyor section.

Pallet Gravity

Much like a typical gravity conveyor, the only difference in this application is the ability to handle pallets. A pallet gravity section is typically used for staging areas, or in EOL accumulation sections.

Chain Driven Live Roller

For high-output pallet operations, live rollers are ideal to provide the flexibility to move multiple pallets, using a drag chain to operate the rollers.

Poly-V

These powered live roller conveyors are designed specifically for stable, slow-moving bulk items. Poly-V sections are ideal for drums, lighter pallets, and oversized bulk loads.


5 solutions to supercharge your eCommerce warehouse distribution

5 solutions to supercharge your eCommerce warehouse distribution

eCommerce warehouses have seen an explosion in demand recently, with consumer behavior pivoting greatly to online shopping. The ease of finding the exact item needed, and convenient purchasing options have made eCommerce outlets a popular platform for customers. Comparing Q3 2019 to Q3 2021 shows a whopping 45.6% increase in online sales (source), exacerbated by pandemic consumer buying behaviors. Every business wants a piece of the eCommerce pie, and many are pivoting to offer online shopping avenues, with no end to eCommerce growth in sight.

With that exponential increase in online sales, more and more warehouses are looking into eCommerce automation solutions that’ll meet expectations, reduce errors, and above all – fulfill orders rapidly. Some of the solutions used in eCommerce warehouses and DCs include:

  • High output conveyance
  • Quick scanning and sortation
  • Automatic label print-and-apply
  • Robotic picking
  • Large SKU inventory solutions

Finding yourself in the same boat? With over 40 years of automation solution integration knowledge, and extensive experience designing systems for eCommerce clients, Century is acutely aware of which systems work best in an eCommerce distribution environment.

1. High output conveyance

Delivery expectations have greatly increased in recent years, primarily due to the prevalence of same or one-day shipping offerings online. Those expectations have extended to wholesaler clients, whose operations must match a competitive wholesale e-commerce landscape. Much like adjacent markets (third-party logistics, for example), automating order fulfillment is key to satisfying customers, while also offering an edge over the competition who don’t have quick shipping incentives.

A tried-and-true conveyor system is best suited for online order fulfillment. Depending on the size of the warehouse it’s installed in, and the product being transported, a conveyor system can include a variety of automation that’s designed specifically for your distribution center.

Simple and durable, a high output conveyor can achieve speeds over 50 cartons per minute and can last around 20 years (on average). Century has decades of experience with conveyor systems, and some of our largest integrations have been highly complex conveyor solutions. Here is one of our systems in action.

2. Quick scanning and sortation

The ability to rapidly and effectively sort your online orders is of paramount importance when operating an eCommerce distribution center. Even just one incorrectly sorted package can cause headaches, and with the ease of returns for consumers, it’s best to ensure the package is sent to the correct destination the first time around. Before sorting operations begin, correct scanning must take place. A scan tower is sensitive enough to capture the UPC code as it quickly passes by on the conveyor section. From there, a form of sortation diverts packages to the correct outfeeding line for loading.

  • Tilt-tray

Tilt-tray sortation uses order consolidation chutes to sort items in a batch-pick environment. Cartons are scanned before being inducted onto a tilt-tray carousel, where it will sit on a moving platform until it reaches their destination chute.  The tray will tilt either left or right depending on where it’s being sorted and slide down a chute onto a conveyor to be loaded.

Tilt-tray applications are effective for high-speed sortation.

  • Cross-belt

Functioning similar to the tilt-tray, cross-belt sortation differs by using bi-directional belts to divert items into destination chutes. Packages are inducted onto the cross-belt conveyor carousel and sorted accordingly. Each belt section can hold one package, but multiple belt sections can be combined and used in tandem to divert larger items.

  • Narrow-belt

A series of narrow belts, each with its own take-up, span the length of the conveyor. High friction divert wheels rise between the belts, diverting product to its destination.

Narrow belts are typically used for larger, heavier packages that need heavy-duty forms of sortation. Smaller packages would not be ideal for this application, as they would fall in-between the belting segments.

  • Shoe Sorter

High-speed sorter utilizing aluminum slats that have plastic shoes that slide across them to divert cartons either left or right (bi-directional) to required sort destinations.

The advantage this provides over the similar functions of the tilt-tray is that the shoe is incorporated as part of the central induction conveyor. This eliminates the need for a separate sortation application, like the aforementioned tilt-tray carousel.

  • Split-tray Sorter

Sometimes also referred to as a bomb-bay sorter, dual split tray sorters have the ability to sort two smaller items within the same tray, at higher throughput speeds.

Split-tray sections have a bottom platform that opens to drop items gently into chutes, totes, or cartons below. This method is space-saving, as the item discharge area drops below vs being conveyed.

  • Swivel Wheel Sorter

Swivel wheel sorters utilize a platform of omni-directional rollers to divert items quickly. When a product reaches the divert, the wheels orientate to direct the item to its destination. This sortation method works best for systems that have a conveyor junction, rather than a gradual merge or curve.

  • Push-tray Sorter

A high-speed sorter with tray segments utilizing a positive divert to gently push items or polybags off the tray and slide them into a sortation chute.

Depending on the dimensions of the parcel processed, each conveyor sortation method varies slightly, and one solution may work better than another one. It’s a function of careful engineering and planning to discover which one would work best. Regardless, any conveyor sorter will far exceed manual labor.

3. Automatic label print-and-apply

Affixing identifiable tags on packages is crucial to ensuring their deliverability. Scanners and sensors across the line depend on a readable tag for it to make it to its destination. Print and apply systems do exactly that. However, there are multiple systems depending on the identification process use and where the box must be marked. Applications can roll-on, wipe over, corner wrap, air blow, and stamp labels.

The direction the box must be scanned also plays a role in a solution selection, but it will outpace manual operations regardless. Automatically printing and applying labels maintains a consistent throughput rate across your system and provides an accurate and stable method of ensuring the correct package is labeled, decreasing the number of errors, returns, and items on a recirc line.

4. Robotic picking

Automating portions of picking operations with robotics is becoming a more commonplace implementation within eCommerce DCs. As technology advances, warehouse robots grow more accessible and inexpensive, making them a viable integration for any warehouse.

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. AGV’s 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.

The prevailing advantage of AGVs and AMRs within eCommerce is minimizing, or even eliminating completely, employee movements. Instead of picking SKUs or cartons and transporting it themselves to induction operations, a nearby fulfillment robot can make that trip itself, saving precious time for the employee. Larger AGV and AMR systems can even retrieve, store, and transport pallets, minimizing manually operated forklift units.

For an eCommerce warehouse, robots prove effective when deployed strategically and in tandem with your warehouse staff. Century can source and implement AGV and AMR systems, engineered precisely for your eCommerce fulfillment and distribution. Got a few questions? Have a chat with one of our automation experts and we’d be happy to help out.

5. Large SKU inventory solutions

With the sheer amount of items available for customers to purchase online, it’s imperative to offer every variant of an item to a customer, because if it’s not exactly to their liking or specifications, they’ll purchase from somewhere else that has it in stock. This is especially important for fashion and apparel companies, because essentially every item needs to be in multiple sizes, colors, and styles. Besides having enough warehouse space and racking to store all these items, one automated solution has gained popularity recently for streamlining the picking of massive SKU catalogs.

Shuttle Systems

A shuttle system utilizes pick robots within a racking structure. When an order is being fulfilled, the robot navigates to the compartment where the item is held, retrieves it, and brings it to the worker’s pack station or an item dispenser receptacle. If your eCommerce warehouse operates a large catalog of items (for example, a shoe company that has multiple sizes, colors, brands, etc) a shuttle system will make quick work retrieving the indicated item for order fulfillment operations. One of the most well-known systems on the market today is Autostore.

Shuttle systems are modular, meaning that the structure can be designed according to your warehouse’s specification, the project budget, and the number of items you have in your inventory. Manual picking operations can be time-consuming the more products you carry, and with customer shipping expectations, expediting that process with a shuttle system will significantly decrease order fill times.


How to achieve Kaizen process success with warehouse automation

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Kaizen (translated roughly from Japanese for “improvement”) is a lean operating methodology that provides continuous improvement by scrutinizing specific inefficiencies and accurately solving them. Typically, Kaizen steps follow the guidelines below:

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  1. Identify

Recognize and indicate sub-optimal processes

  1. Analyze

Research into why the process is not working optimally

  1. Solve

Generate possible solutions to eliminate the inefficiency

  1. Test

Thoroughly test possible solutions

  1. Report

Collect data and determine if test results display a positive outcome

  1. Implement

Act on results and integrate the tested solution


Kaizen methodology thrives on the idea of collaboration and precise measurements. For a warehouse to be operating to the best of its abilities- insights, direction, and data must be gleaned from the employee team, from the chief executive officer, all the way down to a warehouse worker. Understanding and utilizing the data from such varied viewpoints can provide valuable information as to what’s working, and what’s not. This combination ensures that the proposed solution performs well on every level, and is the result of both executive leadership, and hands-on experience.

When considering improvements consistent with kaizen practices, automation is a powerful tool that can solve those points of waste in your warehouse. Typically, kaizen is predominantly used in manufacturing operations, but the same principles apply to downstream, post-production operations like goods-to-person, pick-to-light, storage and retrieval, order fulfillment, and sortation- just to name a few EOL processes.

Inefficiencies exist in these processes too, and we’ve put together our recommendation on which automated systems fulfill kaizen standards for common warehouse waste.


Identifying warehouse waste

Identifying the source of inefficiency in your facility may be extremely simple or hidden enough that you’re not even aware of it.

An obvious source may be something like an old conveyor system that jams constantly, lack of available storage space, or multiple forklifts with not enough employees to operate them.

Hidden waste sources are harder to discover, and may not be something that can be corrected without data reporting software. A warehouse management system (or WMS), connected to any warehouse control system (WCS) can provide a wealth of incredibly detailed analytics and reports. Here is where you can pinpoint underperforming sections of your process, simply by reviewing system rates.

Before any extensive kaizen changes are implemented, a WMS is key to fully understanding the existing conditions of your warehouse and receiving hard empirical data as to if your improvements are, well, actually improving anything.

Losing track of items

As well as generating valuable system reports, a WMS can manage and maintain your inventory levels, important for any company, and crucial for any warehouse that handles a catalog of SKUs. Proper product tracking means less time spent searching and more time spent understanding the ebb and flow of product demand in your warehouse, which can help guide decisions on inventory forecasting and scaling.

Keeping track of product with Excel charts won’t cut it. The benefits of dynamically managing your warehouse inventory outweigh the costs of implementing a WMS platform, which, when compared to other automation solutions, isn’t as expensive or as difficult to integrate.

Manual product movement

Consider all the operations in your warehouse currently that include your workers physically transporting items to the next step in the process. Touchpoints, as we’ll call them, should be minimized. Essentially, automation can assist in lowering the number of touchpoints in your warehouse, if not completely eliminating some.

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The addition of a single conveyor line connecting in-feeding and out-feeding operations can lower worker touchpoints exponentially simply by eliminating the need for employees to transport product themselves.

Warehouse robots, like AGVs and AMRs can move product throughout a facility without an employee actively operating it, unlike a forklift or a cart.

Automation can be integrated as a compliment to manual operations. It’s understandable that not every facility has the budget, or the demand, to automate every operation fully, but having employees run a marathon when they need to pick an item is certainly a source of inefficiency.

Inconsistent product flow

Maintaining a congruent movement of products may seem like a no-brainer at first thought but consider every step of your warehouse process. Are there constant slowdowns and jams? Do you notice many employees waiting with no work to do? How come that pallet isn’t built yet?

Any mishap is much like a domino effect. It’s important to understand that a single area of inefficiency can affect whatever is downstream from it. Consider the timing for each product that’s processed and identify where it’s falling short.

Going back to the palletizing sample, your cartons may be outputting at a fantastic rate, but if your employees cannot build and stretch wrap pallets without a mass of boxes piling up, something needs to be adjusted (like an automatic palletizer, or an additional conveyor line). You may also be looking for the solution in the wrong area. Widen your lens and research how operations upstream can be fine-tuned to avoid errors down the line.

At Century, we engineer systems from start to finish, inclusive of a consistent CPM rate. Our goal is to offer you the best ROI and output rate across the entire solution. This takes a good amount of innovation and ingenuity, but we pride ourselves on being able to offer a specialized design that works just for you. We’d love to hear your challenges and offer our opinions on solutions.

Recurring downtime

System and equipment maintenance should be part of your warehouse’s normal operating routine. The waste appears when the amount of downtime becomes much too excessive.

In our experience, most powered equipment has a lifespan of around 25 years. For something that gets heavy-duty usage, that’s nothing to scoff at, but it’s important to realize when a machine is nearing the end of its duty.

In famous kaizen form, speak with your maintenance team or warehouse supervisor and gather their feedback on which systems are experiencing faults, the age of the systems, and what their ideas are for upgrades. They will have an intimate working knowledge of the warehouse floor and can provide valuable direction.

Downtime may not just simply be something breaking, but an inefficiency created in response to potential downtime, or a temporary band-aid solution. For example, a dock door that has been damaged and cannot be opened, and instead of repairing it, that door is just not used- opting to leave the excess to the other bays.

Difficulty training and retaining staff

A common source of frustration and difficulty for any warehouse, and even more so during current labor shortages, maintaining skilled facility staff is a constant source of improvement.

In terms of automation, any solution that replaces a manual operation will improve the performance of that specific function immensely. After the initial investment, daily utilization costs of the automation solution will be far less than those associated with an employee. The output and efficiency benefits will far outpace those done via manually.

Again, it may not be financially and practically viable to automate every function, so empowering employees with simple-to-use warehouse devices and properly training workers on how to operate systems is a promising path in cultivating skilled workers. Employees feel valued and important the more responsibility they are given and see the fruits of their labor by learning to operate, and work with, automation systems.

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Kaizen operates the best on the notion that communication, teamwork, and a clear upward trajectory are present and practiced. If you’re having labor troubles at your warehouse, implementation of automation will absolutely help, but proper training and empowering workers can motivate them to work better and stick around longer.

Poor usage of warehouse space

The most precious amenity in any warehouse is space. It’s vitally important to carefully place structures, systems, and walkways in a design that’s maximizing the space that it’s given, keeping future expansions in mind. Spaces that are not optimized are only hurting performance, and greatly limiting growth.

Space-saving automation solutions can be done directly with that notion in mind or as an added result of another solution integration. For example, installing a team of AGVs to transport packages can do away with bulky, manually operated forklifts

For a direct answer to your space-saving needs, a myriad of warehouse structure systems like an ASRS, robotic shuttle, or thin-aisle racking (just to name a few) are designed specifically to save space and increase output.

While these systems are powerful, it may not be viable for your warehouse to implement hem. Instead, consider the verticality of your warehouse. The space above you can certainly be utilized provided your warehouse can accommodate. Mezzanines and elevated conveyor systems can free up ground-floor space, leaving much more room to install additional systems.

Obsolete or underperforming equipment

Much like our previous point on downtime, older systems and equipment can impede optimal performance. It can certainly be the cause of the reliability of the system or the technology used is just outdated and essentially obsolete. Material handling technology is in a constant state of evolution, as more advanced developments are integrated. A conveyor system from 20 years ago, while still of the same basic design, is very much different from a modern-day one.

To give a general example, 5G connectivity adaption within warehouses is quickly being adopted, yet, many companies still have legacy systems that run on 3G. The difference is stagging, comparing the speeds of 3G networks (2 Mbps) vs 5G (up to 1 Gbps), and with the advent of IIoT (industrial internet of things), 3G is simply a fossil.

Apply the same perspective on any technical system or solution, and you’ll see much the same difference in the vastness of ability. Consider evaluating any aging equipment in your warehouse, and research the advancements it’s undergone over the years.


Where do I start?

Every warehouse and distribution facility is different, and each comes with its own set of unique challenges. Because of this, the mileage may vary, but correctly identifying pain points should never be a one-sided decision. Kaizen depends on teamwork, and having an intimate understanding of how your warehouse operates on a day-to-day basis means opening lines of communication between departments, and cultivating an environment where employees feel like their feedback is valued and important.

Follow the steps, identify carefully and accurately, and consider how automation can help you dispose of ineffective warehouse waste.

How to achieve Lean Six Sigma methods with warehouse automation

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Lean Six Sigma is a powerful methodology practice designed to optimize operations and remove waste. It was created as a response to popular kaizen practices in the 1980s and has since been a staple in the industry. Its a tried-and-true guide to leaner manufacturing and processing has been adopted and applied countless times, to the point that executives are certified with Green, Yellow, and Black belts, signifying their experience with Lean Six Sigma. If you’re an operations professional in any capacity, you’re probably very familiar with these practices. If you need a bit of a refresher, here’s a great video from Simplilearn to get up to speed.

For this article, we’ll be applying Lean Six Sigma to post-production facilities, namely warehouses and distribution centers, with automation. Out of all the process improvements you can make to your warehouse, automation provides the greatest ROI, output rate, and stability. When working through Lean Six Sigma optimizations, automation is an excellent answer to avoiding waste and following lean techniques.

For the uninitiated, Lean Six Sigma uses the acronym DOWNTIME as a guide to each optimization point.

  • Defects
  • Over-Production
  • Waiting
  • Non-Used Talent
  • Transportation
  • Inventory
  • Motion
  • Extra-Processing

Defects

A product that has received damage or does not function. Defects can manifest at multiple points in a warehouse, for example, an old conveyor section that is known to jam and cause products to knock into each other, damaging them.

Modern automation uses a variety of photo eyes, sensors, and tracking to ensure products do not get damaged during warehouse movement. With the prevalence of product returns, keeping items safe and intact should be of utmost importance.

If the systems that your warehouse uses are not the issue, it may be a case of re-thinking your packaging strategy to include more void fill, or a sturdier carton structure (if you provide order packing). Integrating case erectors, sealers, or formers can provide fast, yet stable carton handling.

Unfortunately, defects can still occur when employees handle the products. Automating and eliminating manual operations will naturally reduce the risk associated with employee product touchpoints.

Over-Production

Eliminating waste is what applying lean six sigma methods are all about, and a major source of waste occurs when excess products are created, but simply take up space as they’re not being sold. While it’s always optimal to have a safety stock available in the event that demand for that item increases, it should be a carefully measured quantity based on product reports.

Avoiding costly over-production boils down to a visibility issue. Products continue to be manufactured at a nominal rate, but sales will always fluctuate.

Implementing a WMS, or warehouse management system, will give you incredibly invaluable clarity into inventory quantities, processing rates, and demand. Using this information, you can scale production accordingly, and interfacing the WMS data you acquire from the warehouse with ERP systems can assist your planning teams to make precise forecasts and informed product decisions, reducing waste caused by unsold inventory.

Waiting

Simply put, waiting in this light refers to any amount of time that waiting occurs due to an inefficient operation. This can span from something as simple as an employee waiting for an order to be picked, to as disastrous as a complete system failure that causes all employees to stop work and wait for the error to be corrected.

Product movement in a warehouse should be a continuous and streamlined operation. Actions should be staggered in a way that employees always have something to do and are not waiting on an action to be completed further upstream.

Automation can absolutely assist in this method, as one of the main goals of utilizing automation is to eliminate idle time. Let’s take, for example, a pallet that was received and is being inducted on a conveyor line. In a manual operation, employees must locate, transport, and depalletize the items. Downstream operators are waiting for this to be completed, sitting idle. If an automatic depalletizer arm was used in conjunction with either a pallet conveyor or an ASRS (automatic storage and retrieval system), the product flow would continue, and employees will always have products to process.

Sometimes, simply eliminating manual operations isn’t enough, in which case, empowering your warehouse workers can minimize times of stagnation.

Non-Used Talent

Much like the last method, spending time, money, and resources to have an employee complete a very simple task (like folding a box or stretch wrapping all day). Of course, automation can eliminate the need for such low-skill tasks, but human interaction will always be a part of warehouse operations. Properly training and equipping employees to co-exist with automation can cultivate talented and valuable workers in an upward trajectory.

Many automation solutions (primarily pick modules) can interface with wearable employee devices for efficient warehouse operations. Employees are more engaged, stay on task, and intimately learn to work side-by-side with automation.

Wearable devices can be wrist-mounted tablets synced with a WMS or WCS, voice-to-pick headsets, scanners, and even smart glasses. But practicing this method extends past providing tech to employees. Fostering an environment where learning is encouraged, combined with ergonomic automation solutions that rely on human interaction for the most optimal operation creates hard-working employees who feel valued and fulfilled.

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Transportation

This method states that unnecessary or inefficient movements of people, products, and resources adds no value, and is a detriment to overall operational excellence. Think of a worker stacking pallets in the corner of the warehouse, only to have to spend precious time retrieving it when it must be processed.

Practically every usage of automation rectifies this method. A system will take the fastest and most efficient route in a warehouse, as it’s precisely engineered and planned to do so. Even equipment like racking helps expedite drawn-out transportation processes, keeping products organized, and maximizing space.

Typically, inefficient transportation is due to a lack of available warehouse space. This causes operators to use band-aid methods to accommodate. It may be time to consider expanding, or implementing space-saving solutions, like short-aisle rack structures, shuttle systems, extendable EOL conveyors, – or an ASRS.

Inventory

Inventory explains that over-compensating for demand and storing excess products is not conducive to a lean operating process. As mentioned before in the Over-Production method, using precious storage space for products that are not selling can be a source of gradual loss.

While mostly an item planning issue, implementing automation and storage solutions can help alleviate the constant ebb and flow of product demand. Maximize warehouse space using equipment like the aforementioned narrow-aisle rack, ASRS, or shuttle systems.

Regaining control of inventory so that items are always moving is a combination of having capable solutions, accurate quantity reports, and a product department that cross-tabulates with WMS reports. It cannot be understated how insightful a WMS platform is for informing forecast decisions, as the wealth of data it provides directly tells what is moving, and what is sitting stagnant and taking up space.

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Motion

Much like Transportation, Motion instead focuses on the smaller movements that employees take with their tasks. Excessive motion due to an inefficient operation opens the door for lost time, errors, and safety risks. For example, imagine an employee at their pack station having to unjam an older taper machine multiple times throughout their shift.

Again, excessive motion by employees is typically due to faulty equipment or operations that must be compensated for. Retrofitting older equipment with newer solutions can help negate this but opening the lens wider to the entire layout of your warehouse can prove massively insightful in rectifying this Lean Six Sigma staple. Evaluate and re-engineer where key processing points are and decide if where newer systems can be placed or integrated to lower the amount of motion an employee makes.

Extra-Processing

This method focuses on doing excess work or using excess resources to fulfill a task. Essentially, not completing a function as lean as possible.

An example of this can be using packing products in cartons that are much too big, unused storage space, and even over-automation. For that last point, over-automation is very much possible and occurs when careful planning doesn’t take place. It’s when an automated system’s output is far greater than what the downstream warehouse operations can handle, resulting in excess product (in the case of a case erector, sealer, or former) or blockages.

Avoiding extra-processing with automation comes down to engineering a warehouse layout that is efficient and provides an increased rate of output but doesn’t produce more than operations can handle. It’s key to create practical processing rate goals and select an automation solution that works for the application. Consider the products that are being handled. A shuttle system works wonders for companies that store a large quantity of the same type of SKUs but would be overkill for a warehouse that doesn’t.

To practice this lean method, task a team of engineers, or work with an automation integrator to select an automation method that’ll fulfill all your process improvement needs, but doesn’t create an over-excess of products, resources, or work.


Lean Six Sigma is a valuable warehouse tool when automation is applied, even more so when solutions are carefully researched, engineered, and integrated. For decades, Century Systems has been innovating in the material handling industry by assembling all the pieces together in a solution that’s consistent with Lean Six Sigma methods, and your output goals.

Starting on an automation project can be difficult, and we understand this. Send us a message or give us a call and get in touch with an automation expert.