How to start integrating automation in your distribution center

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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.

10 Tips on How to Implement Powerful Automation for Wholesale Distribution

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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

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.
    • 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.

Post-COVID Parcel Customer Expectations

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How automation solutions fulfill today’s parcel shipping demands

post covid parcel expectations automation solutions

Parcel delivery expectations have increased exponentially, exacerbated by the effects on consumers of the pandemic, and the movement of large E-commerce players offering 1-day or even same-day shipping. Consumers expect quick shipping in comparison to a decade ago when a speedy delivery was a premium option.

In a recent report by McKinsey & Co., online product categories have experienced a 15% to 40% increase in user growth during 2020. That increase of users means higher expectations for faster shipping speeds, and in turn, carriers and shippers will be expected to offer and fulfill such services.

To accommodate the demand, automation has been utilized to rapidly speed up processing and sortation operations. Forgoing manual labor opens the door to quick shipment offerings, a tantalizing benefit to any prospective client. Automated solutions typically depend on the conveyor and divert systems, which need to be versatile enough to handle small parcels like letters and polybags, to larger carton packages. Belt conveyors are used, versus roller, as smaller items could get stuck in between rollers if the weight is undistributed across incorrectly. Where automation differs, is in its sortation method:


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

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


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.


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.

Parcel Customer Expectation

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Mainly attributed to the increase in e-commerce usage, the courier, express, and parcel (CEP) market is expected to exhibit a CAGR of over 6% from 2021-2026 (source). To adjust to this substantial demand increase, automation and technology are taking center stage to provide future solutions. Parcel distributors have their work cut out for them, as operations need to accommodate for the increase, as well as deliver to customers within 1-2 days.

ShipStation’s report “Last Touch, Lasting Impact” highlighted insightful statistics in how consumers view various topics concerning shipping. A few pertaining to parcel shipping expectations include:

  • 86% say a poor shipping experience negatively impacts their perception of the retailer.
  • 87% say that shipping and delivery experience directly impacts their decision to shop with the merchant again.
  • 47% of customers are more likely to pay for express shipping now than they were pre-COVID.
parcel industry customer shipping expectation stats

Clients strive to uphold the best delivery experience for their customers, and that expectation extends to their parcel handling partner. Recurring slow shipping speeds and errors in sortation can spur negative consumer sentiment or increase returns, something clients work very hard to avoid.

The parcel industry is a constantly evolving sector, as automation technology continues to provide solutions for quick handling and delivery of packages. The post-COVID explosion of online shopping has led many forward-thinking parcel shippers to evaluate their current operations and develop an integration plan.

Century Systems understands how critical effective parcel operations are to maintain customer delivery satisfaction. Our primary focus is to engineer an automated solution that provides a profitable output and is curated specifically to your warehouse layout.

5 Economical Ways to Avoid Conveyor System Downtime

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Conveyor system downtime is a constant threat to a continuously profitable operation. The importance of proper maintenance and ongoing support is paramount to keeping orders shipped 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).

system downtime costs quote

How do you avoid those monumental losses? Here are a few options your business can take to proactively prepare against downtime.

  • Preventative Maintenance Service Plans
  • Hotline Support Agreements
  • On-site Repair Services
  • Spare Parts Inventory Management Programs
  • System Retrofits & Modernizations

1. Preventative Maintenance Service Plan

Some systems run 24/7 and are vital to keeping your operations effective. With hundreds of moving parts and sometimes a complex controls network, it is inevitable something will need to be replaced or repaired, often at the worst possible time.

Avoid the costs and frustrations of downtime and schedule a system audit followed by a comprehensive quarterly, or bi-yearly preventive maintenance program.

A team of experienced certified technicians will walk through your system validating each unit/component, age and condition, available working hours, and more during the initial audit. An optimized Preventative Maintenance plan and associated cost will then be developed for review and implementation.

2. Hotline Live Support (24/7)

Certain integrators may offer live digital support, to guide your designated controls engineer to a solution. This can be achieved by using a VPN to remotely control your system, allowing the support agent to view all error codes, make corrections, and guide your team accordingly.

For example, if an emergency stop cord is pulled, it is a relatively easy fix via the control system, but only if your controller can identify the issue. Instead of sending out a maintenance team, a support agent can remotely clear the codes and restore the system quickly.

When contracting with an integrator, ensure that they have this service as part of the proposal. Century Conveyor Systems includes a year of hotline support with every solution purchase, as well as multi-tiered options depending on the complexity.

3. On-call Emergency Repair

System downtime can occur due to factors often outside the control of normal operations. Life cycle wear, operator errors, power fluctuations, etc. cannot be predicted from an occurrence perspective. Even with an internal maintenance team, a specialist may be needed to address and remedy the situation.

Century can dispatch a team of certified technicians to your location in 24-48 hours and when layered with a Hotline Support Agreement, may even be able to resolve the problem within hours.

Our emergency repair service is within a call away as a safety net in the event of a system failure.

4. Spare Parts Optimization Programs

Downtime is typically the issue of a single component failing, bringing operations to a stop. Like a chain, if one link is broken, nothing works. Now you are scrambling to order a new part from the manufacturer, and then need to get it installed. Unfortunately, depending on the part, you could be waiting weeks or even months.

The solution? Allocate some space in your warehouse (ideally a small section of shelving) towards spare parts. Proactively order components and replenish anything that is used. This can span from common cables and photo eyes to large motors and compressors.

The upfront cost of a spare part is negligible compared to the monetary loss of a system shutdown until the part is received and installed.

If you’re looking to stock up on spare conveyor parts, we may be able to help out.

5. System Retrofits and Modernization

The business drivers of a facility operation are constantly changing with things like labor shortages, SKU proliferation, and the shift to e-commerce fulfillment changing order profiles and product handling requirements. This often requires adjustments to existing systems to accommodate these changes.

Technology is always advancing very rapidly in the material handling industry. Automation is constantly being upgraded to something faster, more efficient & accurate providing improved throughput and functionality.

As demand for distribution efficiency increases due to many influencing factors, now may be the time to evaluate your system. Adjustments can be made piecemeal to keep overall system costs lower, but still benefit the functionality and efficiency of your system.

Don’t find your operations stalled and unable to produce the scheduled output. Build a maintenance plan, explore support and emergency options, keep a spare parts supply stock, and retrofit older systems. Century Conveyor Systems is dedicated to the integrity of your operations. We offer all these services and more as a full-service automation integrator. Bring us your problems and we will work towards an innovative solution, together.