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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century systems kaizen blog header

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 and warehouse automation blog header

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.

15 practical WMS functions to redefine your warehouse

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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 few examples of popular WMS solutions include:

SAP

Softeon

Korber HighJump

Oracle NetSuite WMS

3PL Central

Each solution varies slightly based on the provider, but generally, all offer some form of the solutions outlined in this article.

Century Systems has experience in integrating WMS solutions, and we’re acutely aware of the exponential benefits a WMS can provide. Here’s 15 functions a warehouse management system can use to efficiently transform your warehouse operation.

1. Error Reporting

A critical component of any operation is the ability to quickly identify and correct errors that occur, whether it be a simple box jam, or a system failure that requires a diagnosis. Errors will typically be displayed as emergency notifications on your user interface and navigated to the message will detail the error code and the location of the offending system.

2. System Integration

Maintaining visibility and control of your integrated automation systems is important to manage a successful WMS. WCS or warehouse control systems are software applications created by automation solution manufacturers to offer expanded functionality. WCS’ are designed to integrate seamlessly into your WMS, in turn, both sharing information, and configuration.

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3. Inventory Visibility

Knowing the explicit details of every SKU, pallet, carton, or order and exactly where they are located is a powerful tool to implement. A WMS will log scan touchpoints, tracking every movement and the associated operator the product interacts with. Having this information ensures no products get lost, and that processing timelines are accurate and detailed.

4. System Statistics

Monitoring the status of each of your systems is vital to keeping a warehouse operation running smoothly. Typically a feature with a WCS solution, this view displays system output rates (CPM, LPH), faults, logged actions, and much more.

A system may display statistics such as:

  • Number of cartons inducted
  • Number of cartons scanned
  • Number of cartons recirculated
  • Number of cartons where the bar code could not be read
  • The TCP/IP address of the machine
  • A timestamp showing when the application was last started
  • The number of carton records (bar codes) in memory

5. Settings Configuration

Along with receiving solution stats, many automation systems offer settings that can be fine-tuned for a variety of handling applications. Whether it be adjusting the output rate or turning off functions, every solution has a variety of manufacturer-specific settings to toggle.

Keep in mind, care should be practiced when changing these settings. Typically, the manufacturer or an engineer should be consulted, as adjustments can impact downstream operations greatly.

6. Product/Carton Tracking

Ever lose a product within the warehouse? A WMS makes sure that every single item, carton, or pallet is accounted for, and if something is misplaced, that it can be corrected by following the scan touchpoint history.

While an unfortunately common issue, losing items within a warehouse can be a recurring disaster that can take hours to resolve without a well-tracked WMS.

7. Benchmarking and Key Performance Indicators

For continuous improvement, warehouse performance goals can be created and data aggregated for analytic purposes. Observing this data on a daily basis helps scrutinize where corrections can be made, and a variety of statistics can be recorded and viewed.

8. Productivity Reporting

Productivity reports give you a way to gauge how productive your systems have been during a certain timeframe. You can enter a begin date and time, end date and time, and a system. The reports will display information, such as:

  • Number of items inducted on
  • Number of items diverted off
  • Number of bar codes that could not be read
  • Number of times items had to be recirculated
  • Average number of products per day
  • Maximum number of products per day

9. SKU Management

A WMS can store all relevant SKU information in a library, for thousands of products. An inventory analyst, purchasing, or demand planner can use this information for real-time product visibility. The ability to monitor the daily movement of products speaks volumes about the usefulness of such a function and is essential for a company the handles a large portfolio of SKUs, like a wholesaler or a distributor.

10. Order Manifest

A WMS can retrieve specific order information as soon as a confirmation is made, providing all pertinent processing data to packing operators. Each scan point within the warehouse will be logged into the tracking for the package, and additional WCS systems (like a print-and-apply) can tap into order information to expand functionality and increase automation.

Orders will be recorded in a history view, and can be accessed at any point when needed. This provides valuable reverse-logistics data when a return happens, or for automatic re-ordering of items on a continuous subscription routine.

11. Stock Level and Replenishment

Accurate replenishment reporting is vital in keeping product stock flow consistent and scalable. WMS’ can be configured to send alerts at certain stock level intervals, automatically re-order items, and develop a replenishment routine timeline according to current demand.

12. Picking

Empowering warehouse associates with powerful WMS tools extends to item picking. A WMS will give them exact coordinates to item locations, quantity, packing and shipping information, and more, either at a terminal or with a handheld device running the WMS operating system.     

If interfacing with WCS picking modules, employees can instruct automated systems to retrieve an item, carton, or pallet- all from their WMS-enabled device. This enables faster, more efficient picking operations.

13. Invoicing

Financial reports, invoicing, and general accounting information can be implemented with an ERP (enterprise resource planning). Having this information avoids EOL headaches with fees, and increases visibility into budget allocated towards product transportation.

14. Scheduling

The reporting and demand information acquired from a WMS can be used to direct scheduling for incoming product cycles or operation developments. Integrating the WMS information with an ERP can cultivate accurate forecasting, making inbound and outbound scheduling more potent.

15. Transportation

Interfacing with a transport management system (also known as TMS) provides insight into external operations once the product leaves the warehouse. A TMS provides freight management tools, transportation details, reports, and route information. While not required to implement a WMS, a TMS provides expanded visibility into shipping and delivery, creating opportunities for continuous improvement. Many 3PLs and carriers offer a TMS system that can easily integrate into a WMS.


A WMS is a valuable tool, and any warehouse expecting growth should consider implementing such a capable and dynamic platform. Its Swiss-army-knife set of options, simple usage, and adaptable nature make it a must-have for any fast-moving warehouse.

How to start integrating automation in your distribution center

starting warehouse automation blog header image century
how do I start automating my warehouse blog header image

Venturing into the world of distribution center and warehouse automation poses many questions, a burning one being “Where do I start?”

It’s critical to select a solution that checks off all your operational improvement boxes but doesn’t run up against parameters that you need to maintain. For automation to perform as best as it can, careful preparation and engineering must be done, among a few other tasks.

  • Identify inefficiencies
  • Evaluate existing systems
  • Consider demand futures
  • Warehouse capabilities
  • ROI analysis
  • Internal coordination
  • Assemble a project team

Century wants your warehouse automation operation to perform as well as possible, no matter what it is. Our recommendation is to complete a few or all the steps below before you begin.

Identify inefficiencies

Is there an obvious weak point in your warehouse that automation could solve? Or has it been a while since you’ve looked at efficiency reports or commenced in continuous improvement? It’s important to understand the current challenges your warehouse faces and validate that the automation solution you’re researching will solve most of those issues.

Another component to this point is predicting the operational outcome of the integration. Will your other manual operations be able to seamlessly accommodate for the increased processing rate? Evaluate potential impacts the system may have on other areas of your warehouse and adjust accordingly.

Evaluate existing systems

Updating older equipment that’s already a part of your operations is the simplest way to increase output and bolster distribution. The typical lifespan of most systems varies, but it may be time for an improvement solution if it’s over 15 years old.

Even if the solution still operates well, the advancement of material handling technology has increased drastically, and a newer, more modern application can outperformance the current system and provide additional functionality.

Consider demand futures

What are the predictions for the future of the industry (or industries) you primarily supply distribution services for? Is there an expectation for growth? If so, can your current operations realistically sustain satisfactory output? Consider the direction your company is heading in and apply automation in a way that’s flexible.

For example, there might be an exception in the future to handle products that have unique dimensions. Is the automation solution you’re researching able to transport smaller or larger products? Maintaining a dynamic, forward-thinking mindset and applying it to warehouse automation applications will benefit future expansion.

Warehouse capabilities

Every warehouse is different and has varying limitations and specifics. It’s important to understand this critical point, as some solutions may not offer optimal benefits if it won’t integrate seamlessly in your warehouse layout.

Keep in mind, many warehouse automation systems are designed with this mind. Mezzanines can be used to suspend conveyor lines in the air, while ground operations can continue unhindered below. Narrow aisle racking and autonomous lift trucks can be implemented to decrease the footprint of a storage structure. Robotic solutions like AGVs and AMRs come in multiple shapes and sizes and can move freely throughout a building without having to be “bolted down” in a static position.

When working with your engineers or an integrator, carefully examine the warehouse layout (typically a CAD drawing) and familiarize yourself with both limitations, and room for expansion.

ROI analysis

Price varies greatly depending on the automation solution used. Understand that it will pay itself back in time but know that the return-on-investment timeframe will be longer the more costly a system is. Take into account the system rates of the solution, what your current daily output is, and calculate the profits from the increase. Ensure that your ROI is financially viable and within your criteria.

Internal coordination

While you may be the main operations or warehouse executive, a good leader understands that they can’t possibly be aware of every oversight in their organization. It’s important to connect with other key individuals to gain a perspective on the warehouse challenges they encounter. Some of these departments may include:

  • Staffing
  • Maintenance
  • Transportation
  • Material suppliers
  • Third-party supply chain partners
  • Procurement

Scheduling a meeting to inform them of your automation initiative may bring about some pain points that the solution could solve or identify additional parameters that can be kept in mind as a solution is created.

For example, a maintenance lead may suggest a system that can be serviced easily or might have some insights about the warehouse that should be considered as an automation project commences.

Assemble a project team

Spearhead an effort to acquire resources to begin development. Depending on who’s employed at your organization, your team would ideally include engineers and project managers.

Alternatively, you can contact an automation integrator who will manage all aspects of the project. Here at Century Systems, we offer full-service automation engineering capabilities. Our team of engineers, project managers, account executives, fabricators, and installers see to it that your project is completed, from cradle to grave. Send us a message or give us a call to have a quick consultation with an automation expert.

Warehouse automation trends that will dominate in 2022

warehouse automation trends 2022 blog header image
warehouse automation trends 2022 blog header image

2021 has proved to be a year of unforgiving supply chain challenges. From shortages in raw materials and important electronic components to understaffed operations and demand congestion. What trends in warehouse automation have been developed to avoid supply chain disturbances in 2022?

If there has ever been a time to consider warehouse automation, it would be now. Many DCs and warehouses have experienced an increase in demand, whether it be for products, or in clients. Adversely, the required labor needed to accommodate has subsequently dried up. Positions have gone months unfilled, leaving warehouses to turn to higher incentives for applicants or forms of automation that would eliminate the need for such positions. A growing trend among warehouse staffing is to maximize productivity by equipping employees with technology, and the knowledge to utilize them.

2022 automation trends MHI quote 1

1. Co-op automation

Voice-to-pick

Humans and machines working together, and not as counterparts, can eke the most efficiency out of warehouse operations. Voice-to-pick solutions, when combined with a robotic pick module, benefits when a human operator can continually pack orders, and use voice commands to operate a pick solution for the next order.

Wearables

Employees can be equipped with a plethora of devices to boost accuracy and productivity. Tablets running WMS software can be outfitted with wrist or armbands, so employees can always have both hands free. Enabling on-the-go access to inventory and order information keeps operators on-task, instead of having to access a static terminal.

2. Developments in warehouse automation technology

As new technology becomes more developed and available, so does the functionality of specialized solutions. Every warehouse is different, which means unique material handling challenges are posed for solutions provides to tackle. A few automation systems that have seen continued usage and advancements in 2021, and are expected to be major focuses in 2022 include:

  • 5G connectivity adaption
  • Warehouse distribution drones
  • Climbable pick robots
  • WMS automation integration platforms
  • Micro-fulfillment
  • Advances in machine vision
  • Electric standard (UL and ISO) revisions
2022 automation trends MHI quote

Century is constantly keeping up with new trends and technology, all in an effort to engineer the absolute best in efficiency systems for our clients. Our firsthand experience of the stressors has provided us with the insights to recommend scalable and dynamic warehouse solutions. 2021 has been unkind to all facets of the supply chain, and new warehouse technology and processes are in place to make sure there’s not a repeat in 2022. Get in touch with one of our automation experts and re-engineer the efficiency of your warehouse.

3. A focus on domestic supply chain partners

Supply chain turmoil, while affecting all involved, greatly disrupted those using overseas resources. Port congestion, expensive container prices, sky-high shipping fees, and the Delta variant have strangled international lines. In response, companies are searching closer to home for materials and services, avoiding such headaches in the future.

While outsourced partners may be cheaper up-front, eliminating loss and inefficiencies associated with overseas supply chains may prove fruitful after an extended period of using a domestic partner. 2022 will show how many companies decide to make the flip.

4. ScaaS (supply-chain as a service)

While not an entirely new idea for 2021, the expectation is that 2022 will see more users of SCaaS platforms. Essentially, SCaaS follows the footsteps of SaaS (software-as-a-service) by offering users supply chain functions through an external company. While full-service third-party logistics companies exist, SCaaS solutions strive to provide services for every step, from sourcing, manufacturing, transportation, procurement, reporting, and more.

With more and more companies strapped for staffing and adequate resources, enrolling in a tailored SCaaS platform can alleviate some of those operational pressures. Warehouse flexibility should be a key implementation goal as the new year inches closer.

5. DTC eCommerce disruptors

The explosive and continued growth of eCommerce continues to lead companies to invest in online shopping. For example, Shopify, a leading eCommerce platform grew 110% YOY in the first quarter of 2021, achieving a total revenue of $988.6 million. Industries that typically see a majority of sales via traditional brick-and-mortar channels have dipped their toe into direct-to-consumer sales, such as the alcohol industry, with companies like Drizly experiencing significant demand for home-delivery services. This boom has turned many eyes to new customer behaviors, and 2022 will see many larger organizations adopting DTC eCommerce warehouse automation systems as an additional revenue source.

In summary, the major focus for 2022 is FLEXIBILITY. Ensuring operations can scale quickly due to outside stressors like demand increases and staff shortages is the next step in continuous company improvement. 2021 was the year of reactivity, a learning lesson that hit hard and continues to sting. 2022 will be the year of proactivity- building up resources to avoid losses, establishing high-performing automation, and closely adapting to target consumer behaviors will separate the organizations that will thrive, from the ones that will remain stagnant or even worse, fail.

10 Warehouse Ideas for Outstanding Continuous Improvement

10 warehouse ideas for impactful continuous improvement blog post header image
warehouse continuous improvement blog header

The job of a continuous improvement professional is a multi-variable logistical nightmare, and typically they’re juggling multiple processes and implementation projects at once. A warehouse, whether used for manufacturing, storage, distribution, order fulfillment, or all four, is an integral point of the supply chain where many continuous improvement and operational excellence professionals (like yourself) focus on.

Century Conveyor Systems has over 40 years of working with warehouse operations and understands where streamlining tactics can be administered. Here are our 10 insightful ideas to generate positive warehouse performance.

1. Real-time warehouse visibility

Real-time visibility into warehouse operations through HMI (human-machine interface) will give you valuable control and insight into day-to-day product movement. Allowing warehouse employees detailed error notification, showing the status in all areas of the system, and providing remote access to all control stations located on a system are just three of the major benefits of an HMI.

Adding or updating an HMI program to any automated system immediately begins to increase productivity within a facility, and HMI programs give the warehouse employees a much easier approach to operating an automated system effectively.

2. Evaluate communication channels

How do your warehouse workers communicate with each other (if, at all?). A growing solution that many warehouses are adopting is providing communication methods for employees. This could be as simple as walkie-talkies or as integrated as a voice-to-pick system that prompts employees on picking operations.

Effective communication also extends to project managers. While the typical array of emails, video meetings, and phone calls are here to stay, ERP solutions can integrate direct messages based on specific projects, timelines, and areas of focus. SAP and Oracle are common platforms, but more focused ones like Jira can be implemented as well.

3. Effective waste reduction

Environmental awareness should be an area of continuous improvement for any warehouse. Whether it’s distribution or manufacturing, waste is a byproduct of the operation and must be disposed of or repurposed quickly and effectively.

The most common form of waste disposal is a baler, which typically compresses packaging refuse (like corrugate or plastic). For operations that produce a larger amount of waste, a trash conveyor can move waste into a baler, so all workers must do is move their trash to the line as it automatically takes it away.

4. Maximizing warehouse space usage

Warehouse space is extremely precious-ensuring there’s room for storage, order fulfillment, loading, maintenance, employees, and office space- all while following building codes, is no easy feat. If space is at a premium, but additional systems will need to be implemented in the future, a few capacity-saving solutions can provide some leeway.

  • Inclined and spiral conveyors
    • Suspended conveyor sections above the warehouse floor.
  • Mezzanine structures
    • Walkways and platforms suspended above the warehouse floor.
  • Narrow-aisle racking
    • Special forklifts can be used to access pallets in these lanes
  • ASRS
    • Automated cranes travel within narrow-aisle racking structures to retrieve pallets
  • Shuttle system
    • Items are held in compartments within a complete racking structure, eliminating aisles completely.

If there are warehouse constraints you’re aware of, it may be time to complete a cost-analysis of keeping existing structures or replacing them with space-saving solutions.

5. Influence performance in partners

Transparency and a reporting cadence among partners are key to ensuring your process improvements extend outside of the warehouse. Whether it’s a third-party logistics company that cross-docks your products, or a trucking broker that provides delivery to retail stores, you should be informed of their performance like they’re your own employees.

Many partners provide data reporting software that’ll integrate into your WMS or send automatic updates via an internal portal or email. Review this data and ask questions on any discrepancies, sharing thoughts on where improvements could be made. Fostering open communication and knowledge will benefit both you and your partners and generate performance across the entirety of the supply chain.

6. Reduce manual labor redundancy

Repetitive manual tasks within a warehouse can be a significant profit drain, especially when finding reliable labor is difficult. Although a more expensive upfront cost, automating such tasks quickly pays themselves back and outpaces manual operations in every aspect.

As an example- manual box erecting requires at least one employee (more if it’s a 24-hour warehouse) to simply fold and form boxes all day. An automatic case erector can replace inefficient repetitive laborers, and far outpace their output and associated costs. There are many automated solutions, and each has different benefits and functionality. Century can help you navigate and engineer a system that’ll boost every aspect of your continuous improvement efforts. Let us know about what you’re working on, and we’ll be happy to share our experience.

7. Spur team collaboration

A term you may have heard before, a kaizen process is the idea that employees from all levels of a company can collaborate together to provide insights and skills in the pursuit of incremental improvement.

Every employee works on a specific touchpoint in your warehouse and most likely has deeper knowledge on whatever they manage the most. In this sense, they can provide expanded details that when rectified, can impact the overall process positively.

For example, a maintenance director may know which systems experience the most downtime, and why. Opening lines of communication and collaboration between different departments can solve inefficiencies that wouldn’t have been recognized otherwise.

8. Integrate powerful WMS systems

The ability to have complete visibility of your warehouse inventory at all times is paramount to operating effectively. A warehouse management system (or WMS) stores vital information such as batch number, storage location, inventory quantity, and a multitude of SKU data for ordering. A WMS can even offer the best shipping rate selector and presents data with specific handling information (like weight and dimensions).

Besides being a source of important product information, a WMS can apply that information within your warehouse operations. For example, if the wrong item is picked and placed on an outbound conveyor, the scan tower will read the label and the WMS will recognize it is in the wrong batch, stopping that section of conveyor and sounding an alarm for a worker to remove the incorrect item.

9. Follow supply chain technology developments

As a continuous improvement professional, you should be aware of new developments in supply chain and warehouse technology. Solutions are becoming more nuanced in the sense that there is very specific functionality it provides, which could offer a potent process improvement if applied correctly.

The best way to stay up to date is by setting up a collection of RSS feeds that gathers news and press release articles from industry-leading websites. RSS.app is a great RSS program to start with. Checking your feeds on a daily basis keeps you in the know and allows you to be a proactive supply chain executive.

10. Establish and compare KPIs

Most importantly, before any continuous improvements are implemented, benchmarking has to be done to validate the cost-benefit and efficacy of your strategies. Identify the implementation points in the warehouse and compare output rates over a certain timeframe.

Coordinate with an engineer or plant manager on the system rates of any solutions used, and set goals on where you’d want those rates to be. Many reporting platforms offer KPI settings to collate data around a preselected criterion. Fine-tune these settings to identify inefficient warehouse touchpoints and explore solutions on what would solve them, while maintaining a positive ROI.


Century Conveyor Systems engineers warehouse solutions with your continuous improvement goals implemented. Our process is to work closely with you and other key members of your team to completely understand your vision, budget, and output expectations. Interested in learning more? Send us a message with your thoughts on how’d you like to move forward with your operations, we’d be more than happy to throw in our two cents.

The Lifesaving Importance of a Responsive Medical Device Distribution Operation

medical device and equipment blog post header
medical device distribution blog header post

If the pandemic taught us anything, it’s that distribution operations for medical devices and equipment MUST be poised to accommodate for fluctuations in demand and in supply chain shortages. A multitude of factors can cause important distribution of key medical items to slow:

  • Manufacturing material shortages
  • Shortages in unskilled labor
  • Distribution that cannot handle significant demand
  • Additional safety protocol and procedures
  • Local government enforced restrictions
  • Use of manual operations where automation could be integrated
  • Outdated or ineffective inventory management systems
  • Inaccurate item storage and replenishment

Ensuring stable operations and quick delivery of medical products is paramount to the health and safety of its users, and the integrity of the company providing the distribution. Hospitals and practices are depending on their shipments to treat their patients, and an ineffective distribution system simply won’t cut it.

Dynamic inventory visibility


The first step to updating medical device and equipment distribution is always knowing the status of inventory items. Warehouse visibility is critically important for fulfilling orders, tracking output rates, and replenishing stock.

A warehouse management system (WMS) like SAP or Oracle. These platforms provide insight into inventory, quality procedures, production supply, delivery and transportation specifications, and labor management. The WMS collects data throughout your warehouse by utilizing process touchpoints, like an order manifest or a shipping label scan, to accurately track and provide details on all movements.

Depending on the solutions integrated within a facility, program integrations can be added to provide additional functionality. For example, Hytrol provides their Pivot software, so that their systems can more easily communicate and provide data to the entirety of the WMS.

It’s important to accurately have a grasp on the daily ongoings of every warehouse operation, and before investing in any automation, having full visibility of your operations is a must.

Reliable and quick order fulfillment


With medical devices and equipment, the time when an order is manifested, to when it ships out should always be analyzed for continuous improvement. What manual operations do you currently employ that could be automated? Essentially, every link in an order fulfillment process has an equivalent automated solution that will greatly outpace manual labor.

With medical devices and equipment, the time when an order is manifested, to when it ships out should always be analyzed for continuous improvement. What manual operations do you currently employ that could be automated? Essentially, every link in an order fulfillment process has an equivalent automated solution that will greatly outpace manual labor.

  • Box forming- case formers and erectors, robotic arm formers
  • Box sealing- case sealers, tapers
  • Movement and picking of items- conveyors, shuttles, AGVs/AMRs
  • Print and Apply- Automatic shipping label printers and applicators
  • Sortation- Sorter conveyors and shuttles
  • Palletizing- Automatic robot-arm palletizers/depalletizers
  • Storage- canted racking systems, ASRS units
  • And much more

System downtime avoidance


System downtime is a constant threat to a continuously profitable operation. The importance of proper maintenance and ongoing support is paramount to keeping orders shipping on time and clients satisfied. Unplanned downtime can cost companies up to $250,000 per hour, with 82% of businesses experiencing at least one system outage over the past three years (source).

In the medical devices and equipment vertical, unexpected downtime should be prevented at all costs, considering the importance of the contents being handled. Before a new solution is engineered and installed, plan a routine maintenance schedule. This may include technicians visiting your site a few months out of the year to do a check-up and replace anything that may be worn or broken. It’s also good practice to maintain a parts supply, in the event a critical part fails, and an immediate replacement is needed

Automation for sterile environments


In the wake of the pandemic, various companies have fortified their approach to employee safety and facility cleanliness. In a distribution facility for medical devices and equipment, where sanitization is a necessary step in the supply chain, automation can integrate as well.

AMRs (autonomous mobile robots) have recently been implemented with sanitization functionality. Tooling is switched out for bacteria-killing UV lights, or a disinfecting spray. Autonomous floor cleaning robots are also common, providing reliable, routine cleaning while forgoing the need for an employee to operate a cleaner manually.

Flexible warehouse engineering


Warehouse distribution processes can experience a significant downward trend of output efficiency by a variety of outside factors if future-focused automation options aren’t accounted for in the engineering phase. When selecting a solution, always ensure that your engineer leaves room for future systems to be installed or additional functionality for existing systems (retrofitting)

Consider the trajectory of your business. Are you expecting a new product line or special handling process (such as cold storage) to be integrated in the future? Careful evaluation should be practiced, as warehouse space is precious.


Century Systems has had experience with engineering distribution systems for medical devices and equipment companies (here’s a case study on a past client of ours), and we understand the importance of reliable and stable output rates. All of our projects are designed to be as efficient, turnkey, and results-driven as possible.

10 Tips on How to Implement Powerful Automation for Wholesale Distribution

wholesale automation solutions blog header image
10 powerful automation solutions for wholesale distribution blog header image

Operating a wholesale distribution process is a complex series of moving parts. Each organization has a mix of inventory and typically involves itself in the process of purchasing, storing, and selling products to end buyers like retailers or other wholesalers. With the number of items wholesalers handle daily, it’s no surprise that many invest in automated solutions to enhance operations.

“Product availability and quality is a key element, together with a delivery service that is accurate and efficient is a driving force for businesses.”

Sedat Kaan Hendekli
Head of Operations at JJ Foodservice
Source: BetterWholesaling.com

The burning question is, what automation works best for the wholesale industry? We’ve compiled a list of 10 automation applications that we’ve experienced integrating in the past for some of our wholesale clients.

1. Robust inventory management system


The ability to have complete visibility of a wholesale operation at all times is paramount to effective distribution. A warehouse management system (or WMS) stores vital information such as scan dates, storage location, supply quantities, and a multitude of SKU data for ordering. Depending on the manufacturer, automation systems can integrate with a WMS and provide even more functionality and reporting data.

Besides being a source of important product information, a WMS can apply that information within your warehouse operations. For example, if the wrong item is picked and placed on an outbound conveyor, the scan tower will read the label and the WMS will recognize it is in the wrong batch, stopping that section of the conveyor and sounding an alarm for a worker to remove the incorrect item.

2. Robotic palletizing for redistribution


For wholesalers who use pallets, either robotic palletizing solutions automatically build and break a pallet. A wide variety of robots and end of arm tooling can accommodate most carton sizes and complex layer build configurations for pallets.

The speed and stability of robotic palletizing greatly outpace that of manual pallet building and even lift trucks. For further automation, completed pallets can be conveyed from a robotic cell to an inline stretch wrap operation, replacing tedious manual wrapping.

3. Rapid order fulfillment


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 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:

  • Pack Tables
  • Carton Forming
  • Carton Sealing
  • Label Printing and Application
  • Destination Sortation
  • Loading Assistance

4. Automation-aided picking


For most wholesale operations, an inventory boasting thousands of different products and items is normal. Order picking is usually where inefficiencies are identified, as manual labor is greatly outpaced by a variety of automation solutions.

  • ASRS
    • An ASRS (Automatic Storage and Retrieval System) uses a crane attached to a horizontal and vertical track, scaling the racking structure, and using extendable forks to handle pallets. The operator terminal provides information on what product is stored where, and the ASRS operates when a retrieve or store command is inputted.
  • AMR/AGV
    • Automated Guided Vehicles (AGV) and Autonomous Mobile Vehicles (AMR) 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.
  • Shuttle Systems
    • For the best of both worlds, 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.

5. Flexible packaging


It goes without saying that a massive catalog of products varying in weight and size would need packaging solutions just as versatile.

Automation systems, such as conveyors, are manufactured in different dimensions and applications and can be engineered in a warehouse layout to accommodate cartons of varying sizes and fragility.

We go in-depth on carton packing solutions in our 3PL Automated Box Packing Solutions for Powerful and Profitable Order Fulfillment post.

6. Reliable sortation


Sortation systems separate products for induction into individual lanes typically associated with an outbound destination. Various types of sortation and conveyor systems are often connected to comprise a fully functioning material handling solution.

Wholesalers supply a diverse range of customers from all over, so quick, and accurate diverts are required to keep items moving and heading to the right destination. Selecting the correct type of sortation system is where the most thought should be put, as it all matters on the dimensions of the product being moved.

7. Effective pallet handling


Pallets can be cumbersome to transport throughout a warehouse, so offering simple solutions to warehouse workers to decrease human touchpoints with pallets can prove effective.

  • Pallet conveyor
  • Pallet flow rails
  • Pallet lifters
  • Pallet positioners
  • Gravity racking
  • Tugger and dolly attachments for AGVs

8. Maximize warehouse space


Wholesale warehouse space is extremely precious. Ensuring there’s room for storage, order fulfillment, loading, maintenance, employees, and office- all while following building codes, is no easy feat. If space is at a premium, but additional systems will need to be implemented in the future, a few capacity-saving solutions can provide some leeway.

  • Inclined and spiral conveyors
    • Suspended conveyor sections above the warehouse floor.
  • Mezzanine structures
    • Walkways and platforms suspended above the warehouse floor.
  • Narrow-aisle racking
    • Special forklifts can be used to access pallets in these lanes
  • ASRS
    • Automated cranes travel within narrow-aisle racking structures to retrieve pallets
  • Shuttle system
    • Items are held in compartments within a complete racking structure, eliminating aisles completely.

9. Accurate reverse logistics


Returns are a constant area of disconnect in operations when it comes to order fulfillment. There needs to be a planned intake process to return the items to storage and re-fulfill the order with the correct products.

When returns enter back into a warehouse, they’re put in a separate staging area. Depending on the condition of the item, or whatever the nature of the return is, it may be returned to inventory, sent to another distributor who sells discount items or discarded.

Once a return item has been rescanned in the system, the customer’s order will either be marked as fulfilled (so they can receive their money back) or another order will be placed (in the event they were sent the wrong item, but they still need the correct item sent to them).

10. Forecast planning and optimization


Warehouse automation continues to improve as newer technologies are created and adapted. Artificial intelligence (AI), drones, machine vision, voice-to-robotic-pick, and warehouse data-driven learned actions are just a few examples of what’s on the horizon.

The wholesale industry is only going to grow, and understanding the current constraints of your warehouse, and the projected sales volume per quarter should be your guiding logic as to what automation can be implemented, and when.


Century Systems has had experience engineering systems for the wholesale industry (here’s a case study on a past client of ours), and we understand the importance of reliable and stable output rates. All of our projects are designed to be as efficient, turnkey, and results-driven as possible.

AGV and AMR vs. Conveyor Systems: Drive Efficiency With The Best Solution for your Warehouse.

agv and amr vs conveyor comparison blog post header image
agv and amr vs conveyor system comparison blog post header image

Automatic Guided Vehicles (AGV) and Autonomous Mobile Robots (AMR) have existed for years now, offering robotic material handling operations for a multitude of warehouse operations. The industry is well aware of its pros and cons, and supply chain executives are content with placing them within their arsenal of automated warehouse solutions.

The much harder decision when automating is understanding which solution will provide the most benefit, as opposed to if it will at all. In the case of AGVs and AMRs, conveyor systems are tried and true forms of automation that continue to provide exceptional output and return-on-investment. While both solutions differ in engineering and functionality, both exist for the same goal- reliable, stable, and quick movement of items. How do AGVs/AMRs stack up against traditional conveyor systems? Where does one solution shine, while another does better in a different application?

Century has experience integrating both and understands where and how these systems outperform one over the other. We wanted to share some of our insights so you can evaluate what works best for your warehouse.

AGV and AMR


AGVs and AMRs are often grouped together, mostly because the operations they perform overlap with each other. The single main difference between the two is its form of sensing and moving throughout the environment. AGVs move by using a sensor that follows a set path (typically a form of sticker or tape on the ground-hence the word “guided” in its name). AMRs move by sensing objects around them, and learning an optimal path (hence the word “autonomous” in its name).

This characteristic defines what operations are typically assigned to an AGV or an AMR. Essentially, AGVs work best at moving cartons and pallets across the facility with little to no variation in its traveling path. AMRs shine in picking operations, where it would not have a set path.

AGV


Effective in moving, tugging, and towing cartons or pallets from a single location to another.

  • Carts
  • Tuggers
  • Lift-Truck
  • Pallet Jack
  • Unit Load

AMR


Assistance in multi-variable operations that require diversion in movement paths.

  • Picking
  • Sortation
  • Inventory Control
  • Sanitization

AGVs and AMRs have seen expanded use over the course of the past year, and most new warehouses are built with the notion that automation will be implemented at some point. According to Research and Markets, United States, Germany, U.K., China and Japan are going to lead the market with an annual demand of more than 200,000 mobile robots (AGV & AMR) by 2026.

To put the cost-effectiveness of an AGV and AMR into perspective, Annual costs for a forklift operator can run up to $50,000. If a forklift has to be operated around the clock, then at least 3-4 drivers are needed. Adding the invest costs of $10,000 for a forklift truck to the personnel costs, the annual costs for one forklift come to over $200,000 (ResearchAndMarkets.com). Depending on the output of the warehouse, operating AGVs and AMRs can save thousands over traditional manually operated lift trucks.

Automated robotic solutions continue to improve as newer technologies are created and adapted. Artificial intelligence (AI), machine vision, voice-to-robotic-pick, and warehouse data-driven learned actions continue to provide added functionality and benefit to AGVs and AMRs (primarily the latter). This makes AGVs and AMRs a forward-facing implementation, as abilities are added to their repertoire of functionality through the advancement of warehouse technologies and software capabilities.

Conveyor


Conveyor systems are the typical solution of any automated operation, offering a continuously moving assembly line to quickly complete the processing and distribution of a package. Conveyors use belts or rollers to move cartons or pallets, powered by motors. Each warehouse that employs conveyors has a specially engineered layout, consisting of a variety of conveyor sections, depending on function.

Conveyor Section Types

  • Infeeding
  • Straight
  • Curved
  • Incline
  • Decline
  • Divert
  • Merge
  • Switch
  • Outfeeding

Conveyors produce the best results when implemented in fast-moving post-production operations such as order fulfillment, product distribution, sortation, and crossdocking. Conveyors are highly customizable, with the number of systems that can be added to the conveyor line spanning from carton forming to in-trailer loading, and everything in-between. Conveyors have proved the test of time as being the main system of reliable and quick movement in a warehouse. There’s a reason they’re still in use for over 100 years. The output rate is unmatched and its simplicity in design help it to easily integrate with other cutting-edge automation solutions.

The Most Important Factor: Your Warehouse

If you were to ask us what system we would use, we would ask “what’s your warehouse like?”. This is the number one question you should ask yourself as you’re exploring solutions. The effectiveness and benefit of these solutions are only relevant if integrated correctly in your distribution center, warehouse or facility.

To simply it even further- think on your answer to this question. Can your operations continue effectively if you install a “bolted-down” conveyor system. If the answer is a definite “NO”, then you’ll most likely benefit more from the use of AGVs and AMRs. A fully engineered conveyor system is not mobile, and if your warehouse has limited space, or needs open lanes for lift trucks to travel in, a conveyor system may not be ideal. That’s not to say it’s impossible to engineer, but an AGV or AMR would be a more realistic solution.

With that in mind, here’s our comparison between AGVs/AMRs and conveyor systems.

The Comparison

AGVs AMRs Vs Conveyor

Key Takeaway

Both systems will complete the task of transporting product across a warehouse, it’s that your operations and facility space will determine which one will work better.

AGVs/AMRs are ideal for warehouses that have:

  • Limited space and cannot install a conveyor system.
  • Extensive pick operations
  • Forklifts transporting the majority of items
  • A healthy output rate (5,000 to 20,000 cartons shipped per day)

Conveyor systems are ideal for warehouses that have:

  • Flexible space arrangements
  • A variety of package types
  • Extensive sortation operations
  • A high-output rate (20,000+ cartons shipped per day)

Both AGVs/AMRs and conveyors can benefit in more ways than one, and in many cases, are both implemented in a facility to maximize distribution operations.


Century System’s engineers are skilled in optimizing a warehouse layout for automation, for both conveyors and AGVs/AMRs. It’s critical to make the best use of the space available, and if you’re in the market for automation, a dedicated effort for engineering a design should be considered. Reach out and tell us your operational goals and current warehouse setup, and we’ll engineer a solution specifically for your needs.