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.