2024 Distribution Center and Warehouse Industry Outlook

2024 distribution center and warehouse industry outlook blog hero image

The current state of the supply chain industry

In a December 2023 issue of DC Velocity, leading executives from Old Dominion, C.H. Robinson, and others indicated that a multitude of factors have contributed to decreases across the board for the entirety of the logistics industry. While not overly shocking, since the pandemic propelled supply chain services and operators to unforeseen heights, the adjustment isn’t as simple as the market returning to nominal levels.

While 2024 isn’t expected to be a slump – a few factors currently in play have led analysts and operators to believe it won’t be as profitable as previous years.

Negative factors influencing the supply chain

  1. Geopolitical issues straining overseas supply chains and the acquisition of materials. The most notable being tariffs and restrictions on Chinese imports and secondly – the conflicts in Europe and the Middle East
  2. Excess inventory due to low-consumer demand
  3. Decreased capacity and storage space due to that low demand
  4. Inflation increasing costs across the board, while also influencing consumer and partner behavior to turn to a more economical mindset
  5. Freight rates have bottomed significantly due to an excess of available truckloads and carriers that surfaced during the pandemic, along with the aforementioned low-demand for stock.
  6. Excessive consumer demand during the pandemic have left warehouses, DCs, and intermodal ocean shippers with surplus volume, leading to a significant reduction in shipping and import operations.

Positive factors influencing the supply chain

  1. Government focus on insulating supply chains, especially rail – to avoid repeats of the strains encountered in years prior.
  2. Federal debt increases to spending to avoid a full-blown recession have held steady, along with strong consumer purchasing despite economic headwinds have stalled a full-blown recession.  While not out of the woods, the outlook is better than it was a year prior.
  3. Adjustment of warehouse and distribution center construction and increased vacancy has opened up the real estate market for operators looking to expand into new spaces.
  4. With the decrease in demand (especially in trucking), layoffs from key players in the industry are inevitable. In turn, this will open up a much larger candidate pool for operators that are still experiencing labor issues.
  5. Many operators are shifting material providers from overseas to manufacturers closer to home. For example, Mexico has usurped China in import profits. As of July 2023, Mexico made up 15% of US imports, while China made up 14.6%  – indicating a significant portion of supply chains are shifting their suppliers away from distant countries.
  6. Material handling automation integrators typically follow the effects of the supply chain by a year. Larger corporations have already or are currently implementing automation, opening availability for smaller companies looking to implement a system.

Recession scares

Despite predictions of an impending recession by economists, the resilience of the supply chain industry has defied these forecasts, primarily due to the sustained momentum in consumer spending. This unexpected endurance in consumer activity has, to a considerable extent, delayed what many experts once deemed an inevitable economic downturn.

While the supply chain industry has demonstrated robustness in navigating challenging economic landscapes, it would be prudent for smaller operators within this dynamic ecosystem to adopt a proactive approach. Investing in preventative maintenance for their conveyor equipment emerges as a strategic imperative. This forward-looking strategy not only ensures the continued operational efficiency of critical material handling systems but also serves as a safeguard against potentially exorbitant expenditures in the future when financial resources may be constrained. By prioritizing preventative maintenance, these operators are not merely reacting to the current economic climate; rather, they are strategically fortifying their infrastructure to weather potential storms and position themselves for sustained success in a fluctuating economic landscape.

Automation adaption continues growth

In a recent survey by Modern Materials Handling about material handling systems currently installed and in use at DCs, survey participants reported the following:

The use of autonomous mobile robots (AMRs) and automated guided vehicles (AGVs) shot up to 20% in 2023, from 7% last year, while use of robotic arms/work cells reached 23%, up from 10%.

In terms of other systems in use, deployment of conveyors reached 41% this year, up from 31%; while use of vertical lift modules grew from 25% last year to 34% this year. Use of shuttles reached 13%, up from 4%.

While the notion that automation continues to be implemented is unsurprising, the rate at which is rapid. Supply chain technology continues to advance, ushering in countless new systems and equipment all while removing cost-prohibitive and accessibility barriers. Explosive growth across all MHE systems brings credence to the effectiveness of automation, with the variable being how it is implemented rather than the performance of the equipment itself.

Warehousing employment

Unemployment rates in transportation and warehousing increased from 3.3% in October 2022 to 4.5% in October of this year, reported by the Bureau of Labor Statistics. This indicates that finding labor for distribution centers and warehouses is still an ongoing issue. No doubt the hassle of finding associates correlates to the ongoing deployment of automation to eliminate the need for manual laborers.

As mentioned before, many companies are experiencing the end of drastic growth spurred by the pandemic – leading to large layoffs at companies that hired extensively to account for the growth in past years. In turn, this should open up the candidate pool for employers still struggling to fill warehouse associate roles.

Alternatively, gradually replacing manual labor with automation has traditionally been the most optimal way of adapting to demand fluctutations. Implementing a new system from scratch isn’t always feasible, but a proper retrofit or taking automation one step at a time can make reaching those KPIs just a bit easier while keeping costs down.

Lean and mean

Many warehouse and distribution center operators took the lessons learned from the supply chain disruptions to heart, opting to implement leaner strategies and eliminate situations in which waste or inefficiency exists. The burning issue in warehousing currently is capacity and inventory levels. Dwindling demand has left some warehouses brimming with slow-moving or unsold stock, leading many to cancel orders and shed excess weight.

“The broad measure of inventories to sales ratio across U.S. retailers has stood at 1.30 from May 2023 through October, suggesting merchants have achieved some stability after the roller-coaster pandemic years.” (WSJ)

This flip signifies that shippers are not hoarding product to capitalize on sales, but stabilizing levels so inventory doesn’t become stagnant. As reported by The Logistics Manager’s Index, U.S. operators drove levels down 13 points from a year ago.

warehouse capacity index century conveyor 2024
​Warehousing Capacity December 2023 – The Logistics Managers’ Index

Naturally, capacity is up from 2022 Q4 as well, 10.4 points –  a significant but not shocking decrease, even adjusting for the peak holiday season.

Warehouse and DC real estate

The warehouse real estate market has cooled down significantly after the rush the pandemic created, but leasing, rents, and construction of new facilities continue at a steady pace. Current vacancy in New Jersey hovers around 3.8%, a rise from last year but still overall low. Many operators are taking a “wait-and-see” approach before investing in properties for 2024.

warehouse price index 2024 century conveyor
​Warehousing Price December 2023 – The Logistics Managers’ Index

Prices have dropped dramatically from their peak nearly within two years at an index number of 90.5 in March of 2022 to 65.5 in December of 2023.

While mileage may vary depending on the location and specifics of the facility, prices are overall lower. This makes acquiring space more economically accessible for smaller operators looking to expand but have not yet pulled the trigger. Larger corporations like Amazon, Walmart, and Home Depot have mostly halted snapping up new warehouse space, freeing up commercial real estate inventory and increasing vacancy rates.


The name of the game for distribution centers and warehouses in 2024 is equalization. The explosion of pandemic-era demand is over, and valuable lessons about the importance of the integrity of the supply chain have no doubt influenced change across the industry.

Unpredictable consumer behavior, economic uncertainty, material shortages, geopolitical conflicts, and capacity issues – to name a few – are all factors that have impacted the industry in one way or another. Operators of warehouses and distribution centers would be wise to recognize the prevailing headwinds their organizations encountered and use 2024 to bolster themselves against those barriers – and any others in the future.

Whether that’s pairing down inventory to just-in-time levels, automating material handling procedures, expanding into new commercial space, or completely overhauling logistics processes – 2024 is the year to do it.

Equalize, adjust, and point your DC or warehouse in the right direction for success.

The optimal MHE systems for auto parts & product distributors.

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In the dynamic world of the automotive product and Original Equipment Manufacturer (OEM) parts distribution industry, efficiency and precision are critical to success. Conveyors and material handling systems have revolutionized these sectors by optimizing processes, reducing operational costs, and ensuring seamless supply chain management.

By far, the most important factor Century has encountered pertaining to automating an auto parts and products distribution center is the ability to handle product of extensively variable sizes. It should come as no surprise that auto part & product distributors are rated by their ability to provide the exact correct part for the respective manufacturer, model, year, trim, and engine specifications. To add an extra layer of complexity most distributors stock multiple brands of the same product along with tiered pricing options to reflect economy components versus performance items.

This all accumulates into a distribution operation that requires thousands and thousands of extremely specific products ready to be picked at any moment with the highest level of accuracy. If that isn’t enough, customers (both businesses and consumers) expect quick shipping at low prices.

This segment of the automotive industry has its work cut out for them, but with proper planning, engineering, and system selection, an elaborate operation like this can be transformed into a streamlined and well-oiled process.

Current Status of the Autoparts and Products Industry

Currently, the automotive parts and aftermarket product industry has been booming. The most potent factor is the exponential rise in inflation that has affected the US economy dramatically. Consumers are peeling back on new car purchases and focusing on maintaining their current vehicle. This can be attributed to expensive new vehicle prices, dealership markups, and high interest rates. Behind it all, the electric vehicle revolution is gaining monumental traction, yet most consumers aren’t keen to make the jump to EV, citing range concerns or the lack of affordable EV models.

In 2022, all automotive aftermarket categories experienced growth, with an overall 3% increase to in the industry, with no sign of slowing down (GfK Market Intelligence).


Dealers have also reported that stock levels have reached pre-pandemic levels, as most supply chain issues and material shortages have been resolved. This should help lower new car prices across the board, at least for non-EV models, but the lack of economically-friendly vehicles is apparent. Dealers have noted that the lowest inventory cars currently are smaller vehicles and crossovers.

The combination of all these factors indicates that 2023 is a critical time of growth for the auto parts and aftermarket industry, but – it may not last. With the looming adoption of EVs and stabilization of the new car market, the market for parts for used cars may slow, although according to a 2023 report on the automotive aftermarket by Houlihan Lokey shows that it’s a slow decline.


With electric vehicles looking to take over their internal combustion counterparts, components attributed to those vehicles may stagnate. It’s anyone’s guess as to how the transition to electric will play out, but with most automakers having at least one EV in their lineup, and lawmakers creating bills focused on electric adaption and infrastructure, it’s certainly not a far-off fantasy anymore.

Auto part and aftermarket distributors should look to capitalize on gas-powered vehicles before EV becomes dominant in the next 15-20 years. The majority of mechanical parts are not applicable to electric vehicles, as are many products. The difficulty of working on EVs due to proprietary components and high-voltage limitations may spell a decrease in profits for the industry – as many DIYers, enthusiasts, and non-dealership mechanics and garages avoid these vehicles for those reasons.

Starting line: WMS, WCS, and HMI

Knowing the mass of products needed to be received, stored, and shipped for an automotive distributor – the very first system implemented should no doubt be a proper warehouse management system. The sheer amount of product information requires it alone – an Excel sheet won’t save you here. Proper research and selection of a WMS that can handle such a vast catalog of items with ease is a must-have.

Since the majority of picking operations typically use warehouse associates in some way, it’s also recommended to include some form of WCS (warehouse control system) and an HMI (human-machine interface). A WCS allows disparate system equipment to communicate and share information with the main WMS. This expands the functionality of the WMS so each piece of equipment provides real-time statistics (throughput rate, alerts, device status, etc.), expanding visibility across your entire system.

An HMI is intended for warehouse operators to quickly understand the status of each link in your system, essentially taking the data from both the WCS and WMS and presenting it clearly to associates. Primarily focused on live product flow, pending tasks, errors, and more to-do events, an HMI is a worker-focused hub for presenting actionable jobs and monitoring of daily operations.

Operations for Varying Product Sizes

Automotive distribution centers deal with a vast range of products, each requiring specific handling procedures. Many vehicle parts can be conveyable, providing they don’t exceed the maximum average size of most conveyor systems and sorters (typically below 72 inches in width). For an automotive product and parts distribution center, the majority of orders can be fulfilled if e-commerce operations are present.

For non-conveyable items like exhausts, driveshafts, body parts, etc. automated guided vehicles (AGVs) can optimize throughput by reducing the costs and time associated with using a forklift operator. AGVs efficiently move products across the warehouse like an automated lift-truck and can handle oversized and heavy parts that a conveyor typically couldn’t.

Century’s recommendation? A combination of both would provide the highest level of automation, but a more realistic option would have your conveyable parts and products automated with a picking, packing, and sortation system, while moving and storing large items with a forklift. AGVs and warehouse robots would certainly provide increased throughput and efficiency, but the upfront cost of server activation and deployment of an AGV large enough to handle all non-conveyables may be a tough pill to swallow all at once.

Product Handled

Depending on the types of products that are being handled at your facility, receiving operations should be segmented by the size of the products being inducted.

Small items and cartons – sensors, cables, hoses, gaskets, fasteners, singular items. These items will need to be processed in a GTP (Goods-to-Person) operation for put-away or fulfillment. Pallets containing small items will have to be depalletized at an induction station, either manually or via a singulator/robotic arm. A belted conveyor can transport these small SKUs to be labeled for tracking in the WMS, and once scanned, an operator can place the item into a tote to be transported to storage.

Medium/large cartons – Engine parts, brake and suspension components, automotive chemicals, not to exceed 30”W x 80”L and 100lbs. These items will need to be depalletized and sent through a barcode scanner to determine if it can be shipped as is to the customer or diverted to a pack station for repacking or storage.

Non-conveyable – Oversized and exceedingly heavy items that cannot fit on a conveyor. Exhaust systems, driveshafts, engine blocks, transmissions, body panels and parts. These will have to be unloaded, typically by forklift, to a staging area for proper storage. Tires, which make up a significant portion of revenue with the industry, were typically considered a non-conveyable, but with recent advancements – some units can handle single tires under a certain size. The reason that tires aren’t a great candidate for powered conveyors is that traditional forklifts and racking come in at a much lower cost and are comparable in terms of product throughput and processing time. Tires are also often banded together in stacks of 4, which a conveyor could not handle in a stable manner. If automating a tire operation, consider AGVs/AMRs for optimal handling, or simple gravity roller conveyors so operators can push tires instead of picking them up.

Manual induction – Certain items may not be able to be sorted, either due to a no-scan or QA issue. These items will have to be manually inspected and reprocessed by an operator, so sortation systems will have to include a divert or two where these items can be sent.

Each product requires careful planning based on its size. Fully understand the range of items in your inventory and ensure that there is a corresponding operation to handle it accordingly.


In a high-throughput facility, accurate and quick product sortation is key. Slat and shoe sorters are ideal solutions – Century has integrated large sortation lines such as the Hytrol ProSort for such applications, achieving success in maintaining high-speed distribution operations for cartons of various sizes and quick, but gentle diverts.

It goes without saying that every distribution center and facility is different, and that a solution in one facility may not work for another. If your facility uses polybags or bubble mailers for example, a shoe sorter system would not be a good solution as items that light and thin would get jammed. Instead, tray, belt diverts, or modular plastic sorters could be a closer fit for the product handled.

Take into consideration the course the product takes once it’s sorted. Chutes, gravity wheel conveyors, recirculation, dock extendables, and other equipment should all be considered depending on your trailer loading operations. Because of this, most large sortation systems are strategically placed closer to the loading doors, leaving space for forklifts and operators. If space is at a premium in your facility, sorters can be installed overhead – either on tall supports, a mezzanine, or supported by the ceiling.

Either way – a sortation unit is critical to ensuring fast order processing and shipping, especially for an auto part or product distributor that manages thousands upon thousands of different items per day.

Picking Optimization

The automotive distribution industry deals with a wide range of products, often requiring extensive storage space. Material handling systems, such as automated storage and retrieval systems (AS/RS), maximize space utilization. AS/RS uses robotics and computer-controlled mechanisms to store and retrieve products efficiently, optimizing storage capacity and reducing the need for extensive warehouse space. These systems can be costly, and should only be considered if you have a high SKU count and significant eCommerce operations.

A wide variety of picking modules are available – from mini-shuttle systems to cell-based pick walls. These systems can be fully or partially automated, or designed to be based around a single operator picking products from and to systems (receiving products from a picking shuttle, packing them, then outfeeding to a conveyor, for example).

The simplest and most cost-effective option would be ergonomic racking modules and shelves that make piece picking for fulfillment easy for warehouse associates. Flow racking for both cartons and pallets slot items in a shelving unit lined with gravity wheels, making retrieval easy. Pick cells can also be considered, as well as any number of container trollies on casters. Automation also comes in the form of empowering warehouse associates with picking technology – voice and vision pick, wearable scanners and terminals, picking light indicators, and other devices designed to assist operators. Century recently integrated ergonomic picking solutions for a convenience store product provider – another industry that manages a variety of SKU types.


Conveyors and material handling systems are integral components of the automotive product and OEM parts distribution industry. By streamlining material flow, increasing throughput, enabling efficient order fulfillment, facilitating JIT delivery, and optimizing storage space, these automation solutions have become indispensable for staying competitive in the fast-paced automotive sector.

As the automotive industry continues to evolve, embracing cutting-edge material handling technologies is vital to remain agile, efficient, and responsive to market demands. Conveyors and material handling systems empower automotive distributors with the tools they need to thrive in an ever-changing landscape, ensuring seamless operations and satisfying the demands of customers and manufacturers alike. With electric vehicles looming on the horizon, our recommendation is to implement a high-throughput automation system now while gas vehicles are still the dominant product, maximizing profits.

A Guide to the Parts and Components Of A Conveyor

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a guide to the parts and components of a conveyor blog header image

Conveyors, while simplistic in function, are constituted of a multitude of mechanical parts that enable durable, stable, and efficient movement. Much like a car, in its most basic form, a material-handling conveyor uses a motor (engine) and gearbox (transmission) to provide power in a continuous motion.

If you’re considering a conveyor unit or system in your facility, understanding its critical components and operations can assist in routine maintenance, repairs, upgrades, and future system integrations. Each part plays an important role, and grasping the mechanical basics can help you identify when continuous improvement situations occur within a conveyor system.


A belt is one of the most common applications of conveyance technology. A multi-layered rubber (or similar material) sheeting surrounds the “carcass” or the core of the belt. The carcass is constructed from tightly woven fabric, intertwined with each other within the top and bottom covers of the belt. Belts are wound around the head and tail pulleys on the conveyor bed, powered by the motor. Belts are created in a multitude of materials, sizes, and functions, covering a wide range of material handling applications.

Tip: Conveyor belts are extremely durable, but when rips and tears occur, splicing and vulcanization are relatively simple methods to repair the material.

  • Rubber
  • Fabric
  • Modular plastic
  • Cleated
  • V-belt
  • Curved


Rollers are elongated cylinders attached via bearings across a conveyor bed using gravity and low-horsepower motors to move product. Items are propelled forward from spinning roller to roller, or across a belt that is threaded over a bed of rollers.

  • Plastic
  • Steel
  • Rubber
  • Motorized Drive Roller (MDR)
  • Split Roller
  • Pallet Roller


O-rings or O-bands are rubber-based circular bands that are routed in channels on rollers. O-rings allow multiple rollers to spin, keeping constant and stable movement forward as the product passes the section. Without O-rings, a roller would only move as the product skates over it. With O-rings, rollers in front of the package spin with the previous section, ensuring the package does not stop or jam.

Tip: It’s easy to diagnose when an O-ring has failed. Simply search for any rollers that are not spinning when the conveyor section is operating. A single broken O-ring won’t bring a system to a halt, but multiple non-spinning rollers could cause trouble. Fortunately, O-rings are inexpensive and easy to replace.


Conveyor belts are routed through a bed structure via a pulley system to drive movement forward. Pulleys provide stable motion by maintaining belt tension, tracking, traction, and direction. Each pulley in a conveyor bed provides a different function based on its location.

Pulleys are mainly only used for belted conveyors, although some manufacturers do have chain-routed pulleys for live (continuously moving) roller applications.

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  • Tail end – Pulley positioned at the conveyor section infeed.
  • Bend – Pulley that directs the belt down to the take-up.
  • Take-up – Situated lower than in the conveyor than the other pulleys, the take-up manages tension for the entire belt route.
  • Snub – Increases traction and stability by providing angled tension to the head pulley.
  • Head – Main pulley that drives the motion forward at the conveyor discharge.


The engine of the conveyor, an electric motor (or gearmotor) generates energy for the gearbox, providing power to the moving components of the unit. Placed at the discharge end, or center of the conveyor, motors can vary in size, shape, and horsepower. For a single unit, a 2hp or 3hp motor provides adequate power, while faster conveyor systems (like a sorter) require larger, more powerful motors.

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  • Drum
  • Side-mounted
  • Under-bed mounted

Conveyor motors come in various types and sizes, depending on the specific application and conveyor configuration. Motors can be AC (alternating current) or DC (direct current) and can have different power ratings, speed capabilities, and torque outputs. Conveyor motors are typically connected to the gearbox or the conveyor pulley or roller, and their speed and direction can be controlled through a variable frequency drive (VFD) or other speed control devices.

In addition to their power and durability, conveyor motors are also known for their low maintenance requirements and ease of use. They can be easily installed, repaired, or replaced, minimizing downtime and improving overall efficiency. Conveyor motors are also energy-efficient, reducing energy consumption and costs while maintaining high-performance levels.

Photo Eyes

Also known simply as a sensor, conveyors use photo eyes to complete functions based on the status captured when product moves on a unit. As a package travels throughout a conveyor system, it passes a multitude of sensors attached to the bed sides that track its movement. This tells the conveyor control module when to stop, go, or redirect the package(s), based on the information provided by every photo eye in a system. This avoids jams and blockages and maintains efficient product flow. Photo-eyes are categorized via their sensing ability and are manufactured either as through-beam sensors, retro-reflective sensors, and diffuse reflective sensors.

A few notable manufacturers of photo-eyes include but are not limited to:

  • Balluff
  • Omron
  • Pepperl+Fuchs
  • Sick AG
  • Rockwell Automation
  • Turck Inc.
  • Allen-Bradley


Bearings play a critical role in the smooth operation of conveyor systems. Serving as the mechanical interface between moving parts, bearings provide support, reduce friction, and facilitate the motion of the conveyor belt. They are typically mounted on conveyor rollers, pulleys, and other rotating components, allowing them to rotate freely while minimizing wear and tear. Bearings enable the efficient and reliable movement of the conveyor belt, helping to transport materials smoothly and consistently.

Properly functioning bearings are essential for preventing belt misalignment, reducing downtime, and extending the overall lifespan of the conveyor system. With their crucial role in ensuring reliable and smooth conveyor operation, high-quality bearings are a key component in maintaining the performance and productivity of conveyor systems.


Brakes are an important safety feature in conveyor systems, providing control and stability during operation. These mechanical devices are designed to halt or slow down the movement of the conveyor belt or specific conveyor components. Brakes can be applied in various ways, including drum brakes, disc brakes, and caliper brakes, depending on the specific conveyor system’s requirements.

One of the key benefits of brakes in a conveyor system is enhanced safety. They can prevent conveyor belt slippage, which may occur during sudden stops or in emergency situations, reducing the risk of accidents or injuries. Brakes also allow for precise control over the conveyor’s speed, direction, and positioning, helping to avoid damage to materials, equipment, or personnel.

In addition to safety, brakes also provide operational flexibility. They allow for smooth and controlled stops, starts, and changes in direction, which can optimize the conveyor system’s performance. Brakes enable the conveyor to handle varying loads, inclines, or declines, ensuring consistent and reliable operation.

Guardrails & Supports

Guardrails and supports are crucial components of a conveyor system, providing stability, safety, and structural integrity. Guardrails, typically installed along the sides of the conveyor, serve as a physical barrier to prevent materials from falling off the conveyor belt or interfering with surrounding equipment or personnel. They help to contain and guide the materials being transported, ensuring that they stay on the conveyor and do not pose a hazard to the surrounding environment.

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Supports, on the other hand, are used to provide structural stability and maintain proper alignment of the conveyor belt. They are usually positioned underneath the conveyor belt and provide support to the conveyor frame, rollers, and other components. Supports are designed to withstand the weight of the conveyor system, the materials being transported, and any additional loads or impacts that may occur during operation.

Guardrails and supports are typically made of durable materials, such as steel or aluminum, to provide strength and durability to the conveyor system. They are often adjustable and customizable to accommodate different conveyor configurations, heights, and widths. Guardrails and supports may also be equipped with additional features, such as guide rails, brackets, or brackets, to ensure proper alignment, prevent material spillage, and optimize conveyor performance.


A gearbox is a critical component in a conveyor system, serving as a mechanical power transmission device that controls the speed and torque of the conveyor belt. It is typically connected to the motor and the conveyor pulley or roller, and its main function is to convert the rotational speed and torque from the motor to the desired speed and torque for the conveyor belt.

Gearboxes contain a set of gears with different sizes and arrangements, which determine the gear ratio and subsequently the output speed of the conveyor belt. The gear ratio can be adjusted to suit the specific requirements of the conveyor system, allowing for precise control over the belt speed, direction, and performance. Gearboxes can be configured with various gear types, including:

  • Spur
  • Helical
  • Bevel
  • Worm

Gearboxes also provide torque multiplication, allowing the motor to generate higher torque at the conveyor pulley or roller, which is essential for overcoming the resistance and friction of the conveyor belt and the materials being transported. This enables the conveyor system to handle heavy loads, inclines, or declines, while maintaining the desired belt speed and performance.

Gearboxes play a crucial role in protecting the motor and the conveyor system. They can absorb shocks and vibrations, smooth out the power transmission, and prevent excessive wear on the motor and other conveyor components. Gearboxes also provide safety features, such as overload protection, by using clutches, brakes, or other mechanisms to prevent damage to the motor or the conveyor system in case of excessive loads or sudden stops.

Need help with your conveyor system? Century Conveyor Systems Inc. has over 40 years of conveyor service experience and boasts a full department of maintenance technicians and equipment experts. Learn more about our extensive capabilities at our On-site Conveyor Service page.

Conveyor Unit Maintenance Checklist

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Experiencing trouble with your conveyor system, and don’t know where to start? Century Conveyor Systems has created this service checklist that our very own conveyor technicians use in the field to diagnose systems.

Like any machine, conveyor systems need to undergo proper maintenance and repairs to operate as efficiently as possible. Much like a car, certain components need to be routinely identified and serviced before damages or an outage occurs.

Following the maintenance checklist below at regular intervals will take you through the most common service points on a conveyor unit.


Condition■ Frayed■ Ripped
Lacing■ Pulled-out■ Teeth Missing
Tracking■ Off-center
Tension■ Too Tight■ Too Loose

Drive Assembly

Motor■ Noisy■ Overheating
Reducer■ Leaking■ Low Oil Level
Reducer Breather■ Dirty■ Missing
Clutch■ Noisy■ Slipping
Brake■ Noisy■ Slipping
Wiring■ Damaged■ Exposed
Chain & Sprockets■ Noisy■ Worn■ Alignment Off
Belt Drive■ Noisy■ Teeth Missing■ Alignment Off
Drive Pulley■ Damaged■ Worn Shaft■ Alignment Off
Drive Pulley Lagging■ Damaged■ Separating■ Alignment Off
Bearings■ Noisy■ Worn Grease Seals
Assembly Bolts■ Loose■ Missing

End Assembly

Pulley■ Damaged■ Worn Shaft■ Alignment Off
Bearings■ Noisy■ Worn Grease Seals

Take Up Assembly

Pulley■ Damaged■ Worn Shaft■ Alignment Off
Bearings■ Noisy■ Worn Grease Seals
Adjustment Bolts■ Noisy■ Worn Grease Seals


Idler■ Noisy■ Missing■ Bent
Snub■ Noisy■ Damaged
Pop-Out■ Noisy■ Missing■ Bent
Transition■ Noisy■ Missing■ Damaged

Conveyor Bed

Condition■ Damaged■ Holes■ Alignment Off
Supports■ Damaged■ Loose■ Missing
Transition■ Missing■ Alignment Off


Conduit■ Damaged■ Loose
Junction Boxes■ Damaged■ Open■ Missing
E-Stop Buttons■ Damaged■ Missing■ Not Functioning
Pull Cord Switches■ Damaged■ Not Functioning

Extendable Conveyor

Cam Followers■ Missing■ Loose
Lifting Screws■ Worn Threads■ Not Functioning
E-Stop Buttons■ Damaged■ Not Functioning
Limit Switch■ Damaged■ Not Functioning

Bonus: Maintenance Tips

Belt Repair

Frayed, torn, or worn belts can actually be repaired if the damage is not too extensive.

There are a few methods used to do this:

  • Vulcanization
  • Cold curing
  • Metal fasteners


Excessive load on a conveyor can place strain on components, cause belts to track unevenly, or cause motors to overheat and shut off. Ensure workers are placing items in the middle of the belt, facing straight ahead.

Structure Stress

Items may be getting jammed at a certain point in the conveyor, even when belts, rollers, pulleys, and idlers have been adjusted correctly. This may be because the conveyor bed structure itself is warped, due to excessive loading or employee error (such as leaning on conveyor support).

Check to ensure sections line up, and that there are no depressions or offsets in the side structures.


Chain wear without routine lubrication causes the chain to sag over time, and will not fit the sprockets. Proper usage of the recommended oil grade, per the manufacturer, or the temperature, will extend chain life.

Need help with your conveyor system? Century Conveyor Systems Inc. has over 40 years of conveyor service experience and boasts a full department of maintenance technicians and equipment experts. Learn more about our extensive capabilities at our On-site Conveyor Service page.

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

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conveyor operating costs blog header image

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

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

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

Complexity of system

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

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

Employee training

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

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

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

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


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

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

Commonplace maintenance items may include:

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

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

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

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

Uptime and Speed

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

Warehouse Management Software

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

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

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

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

Additional integrated systems

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

46 Eye-Opening Distribution Center Industry Statistics

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DC Operations

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

DC Spending

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

DC Real Estate

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

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

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

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

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

Top DC Concerns

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

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

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

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

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

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

eCommerce and DCs

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Third-Party Logistics (3PL) Industry

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Century Project News: November 2022

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November 2022 Century News Post

NJ Distribution Center Cross-docking System

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

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

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

EuroSort split-tray sorter

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Hytrol dual shoe sorter

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Controls, spiral, extendables, and more

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About Century Conveyor Systems Inc.

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

Distribution center and warehouse trends that will dominate in 2023

2023 Distribution Center and Warehouse Trends

Increased adaption of automation

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

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

2023 warehouse trends automation adaption stats

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

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

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

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Neighborhood distribution centers and micro-fulfillment

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

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

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

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

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

Electric and autonomous last-mile delivery vehicles

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Autonomous lift and reach trucks

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

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

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

AI solutions and machine learning (connecting disparate data)

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

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

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

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

Supply and inventory resolutions and cleanup

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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.

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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.