Sortation systems play a critical role in a wide range of automated logistics applications. Driven by the desire for greater productivity throughout the supply chain, a number of new solutions have been developed to improve their efficiency and cut labour requirements. At the same time, completely new technologies such as order assembly are emerging, offering compelling advantages in a number of applications that have traditionally been fulfilled by high speed sorters. Modern sorter applications fall into two main categories: item sortation and case sortation.
Maximising Productivity of Item Sortation Applications
In item sortation applications, systems such as Dematic’s cross-belt and tilt-tray sorters offer the ability to handle a wide range of individual products reliably at very high speeds. In industries including apparel, publishing and e-commerce/mail order, such sorters have proved extremely successful in automating the task of splitting batch picked items into individual orders. Given the throughputs possible, there are clear benefits to be realised in terms of the speed of order picking.
However such applications still require significant labour resources. Typically these include staff to batch pick items from storage, manually induct goods onto the sorter and, at the end of each chute, pack the orders. In addition, the issue of pick face replenishment must be addressed. Over recent years, distribution and fulfilment centres have been faced with tighter labour markets. Wage costs have risen, and it has become harder and harder to find staff with the right skills. Consequently, reducing manpower requirements has become a higher priority.
In response to these challenges, Dematic has developed a range of new solutions that further enhance the productivity and cost-efficiency of sortation-based item picking. For example, the initial batch picking process can be automated through the use of either a miniload ASRS, or the new Multishuttle high throughput storage and retrieval system. This eliminates the need for manual picking and replenishment, and is an approach that is already working successfully for a number of apparel and book companies in Europe.
More sophisticated sorter chutes that can automate the packing of items into cases have also been introduced. For a major Spanish fashion retailer, Dematic has designed and implemented sorter chutes that automatically build ‘store friendly’ cartons with maximum packing density. As a result, cartons arrive at stores in a format that enables goods to be put on display quickly and easily.
By implementing these new generation chutes, along with a miniload or Multishuttle, it is possible to reduce the number of ‘touches per item’ in sorter-based item picking applications from four to one.
Improving the Productivity of Case Sortation Applications
The use of sorters for carton handling is similarly undergoing some major changes. Sorters offer significant benefits in applications such as parcel handling, cross-docking and vehicle loose loading. However, in areas such as order picking and pallet building – as with item handling – the use of sorters is typically labour intensive. Operators are required for replenishing and picking from a pick system, and palletising from chutes. Furthermore, the ability of sorters to deliver store friendly despatch units is limited. Typically a range of different products are inducted onto a sorter at the same time. To maintain throughput, these items need to be sorted immediately, so control over the sequence in which items are sent down chutes is severely restricted.
There are solutions for improving the situation. A pre-sort buffer can enable items to be inducted in a more sequenced order, whilst intelligent sortation software can co-ordinate the balance between sorter inducts and chutes to achieve better store friendliness. Indeed, Dematic has recently upgraded the sortation system for one of the UK’s largest retailers to achieve just such an improvement in the pallet building process.
A Step Change in Productivity and Flexibility for Case Picking and Sortation Applications
A more flexile and productive solution to case order picking and pallet building replaces the traditional sorter with Dematic’s Multishuttle. Order Assembly systems utilise the Multishuttle as a high throughput engine for buffering and sequencing cases in precisely the order required at palletising stations. The creation of store friendly pallets is therefore readily achieved. Furthermore, pallet density can be optimised, cutting transport costs.
Alongside store friendly output, order assembly systems offer other key benefits. In a typical sorter-based application, each chute is dedicated to a specific retail store. Depending on the volume of orders for the store in question, operators at the end of the chute can either be inundated or, at the other extreme, starved of work. Balancing labour and workload can prove challenging. In contrast, with order assembly systems, pallets for any number of different stores can be built at each station. Consequently, the operators are continuously working at maximum efficiency, and stations can be opened and closed to match fluctuations in demand. Recognising these benefits, an increasing number of companies in the grocery, general merchandise and food and beverage sectors are implementing order assembly solutions, realising significant productivity and flexibility gains over traditional sorter-based systems.
Modern logistics operations must now deliver a combination of high productivity, low running costs and the flexibility to react quickly to a changing business environment. In many applications, the arrival of innovative new solutions will ensure that high speed sortation remains capable of delivering the necessary levels of performance. Equally, in a growing number of case picking applications, order assembly systems now offer a range of benefits beyond those achievable by even the most sophisticated sorter systems.