If there is one lesson that conveyor users should fix on in an e-commerce environment it is that the need for flexibility is often a key, sensible consideration. A revolution is going on in the distribution industry which is changing the face of loading bays to accommodate the huge shift from pallet load despatches in large trailers to single parcel handling, involving much smaller delivery vehicles like the VW Crafter and Mercedes Sprinter for direct delivery to people’s homes. The seismic shift to online shopping also imposes the need to meet demanding delivery schedules, in some cases same-day delivery, and the ability to meet manic one-day promotions and other sales peaks.

How best that can be done by conveyors connecting the storage areas to loading bays will depend partly on the nature of the goods being handled but flexibility will often be important. Warehouses specialising on hanging garments often use ‘intelligent’ overhead sortation conveyors that can be extended right into docked delivery vehicles, but these would mostly be for delivery to retail stores.

Where there is a need to handle separate parcels for home deliveries, however, the simplest solutions can be the best ones, which means flexibility. FMH Conveyors, for example, found that the surge in internet shopping led to an increase in loose parcel shipping and an increased need for simple sort and distribution centres that could be set up very quickly, modified easily, and relocated as required. Its customers realize that the ability to re-use the conveyors at alternative locations overcomes the reluctance to invest in what may prove to be temporary operations.

Perhaps the cheapest way to load/unload delivery vehicles is to lay a strip of unpowered roller conveyor on the floor running from the dock into a lorry with two people at each end, loading and unloading the conveyor manually. While handling rates can be high the frequent bending involved would pose ergonomic problems. A more ergonomic solution would be the Bestflex and PowerFlex conveyors available in either skate wheel or roller versions. These can be shaped like a snake to make them more flexible on assembly lines. Straight-line, telescopic vehicle loading conveyors have been a popular alternative for many years and do not need any supporting structure within a lorry.

FMH believes that in most cases loose loads are more cost effective to ship than palletised loads or cages but it is important to use the right kind of conveyor. Doing so could cut the handling time of a 40- ft trailer from an average of four hours to less than one hour, including mixed SKU sortation. Saving time like this is important because e-commerce orders cost three to four times more than placing traditional stocks in shops. High speed sortation conveyors have been around for 40 years but they have advanced significantly in their sortation speeds and harnessing of information on-thefly and it is an ever-evolving industry designed to raise efficiencies, partly through greater flexibility and lower costs. A recent example is SSI Schaefer’s Autocruiser, a less costly and more flexible alternative to a conventional conveyor system, comprising transport carriers operating on rail structures which are easy to extend and modify, making it a versatile and scalable solution. The system is simple enough for users to install themselves and so save money on installation costs. Another recent innovation is Dematic’s latest Generation 3 cross belt sorter, with its new option for overhead induction, offering new configuration possibilities that could reduce the footprint.

Owing to the critical role of conveyors in an e-commerce-geared warehouse the need to prevent equipment failures becomes more pressing. Motorised conveyors’ weak spot is the motor. Any malfunction here can lead to costly shut downs. One weapon to counter this is Exotherm’s thermal monitoring system which should increase uptime and reduce maintenance downtime. It provides continuous hotspot detection of critical power connections and so can eliminate annual or periodic inspections.