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.

Post-COVID Parcel Customer Expectations

parcel industry customer expectations blog post header

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

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

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

Cross-belt

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

Narrow-belt

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

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

Shoe Sorter

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

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

Split-tray Sorter

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

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

Swivel Wheel Sorter

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

Push-tray Sorter

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

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

pullquote graphic parcel industy automation

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 Surefire Warehouse Solutions to Avoid System Downtime and Stay Profitable

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system downtime blog graphic

System downtime can be easily prevented

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 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).

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 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? Century can assist to monitor and maintain the proper parts inventory levels at your facility to be available when needed.

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.

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 benefiting 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.