In earlier days the automation of warehousing tended to carry an inflexibility label but today equipment providers know the value of trying to make their products as resilient and flexible as possible. Mindful of the seismic impact e-commerce has had on distribution, kit suppliers know that fast, accurate delivery to consumers is critical and so they have honed their variety of conveyors best suited to the types of goods conveyed.

Specifying a ‘dumb’ conveyor just for loading goods from a loading bay into a trailer vehicle requires little thought but such is the complexity of an automated turnkey project that it may even be advisable to call in consultants or systems integrators as the main contractor because of the variety of conveyors, many of which today have been influenced by the type of goods conveyed. The problem is more difficult for those distributors handling a vast range of goods in many different sizes, shapes, weights and fragility.

Generally, however, the safer route would be to deal with a major handling automation house with experience in handing your specific types of goods. These big houses now have their own in-house software developers, which cuts implementation risks.

The trend in today’s automated warehouses is towards more order picking down to single item level, spurred by the rapid rise of ecommerce. This emphasises the need to ensure pickers do not waste unproductive time doing too much walking between picks. In the past this has been achieved by goods-to-picker systems like AS/RS systems, supplemented by pick-tolight and pick-by-voice devices. But once picked, goods must be relayed to packing and despatch points and conveyors may not always be the best choice. Many distributors are now finding small AGV robots a better choice, and fortunately the leading automation specialists now include these devices in their product portfolios.

If a distributor already has a keen idea on the type of conveyor needed then it will not be necessary to deal with the big automation companies, as European fashion retailer, We Fashion, found when Distrisort, a specialist in high speed sortation conveyors, provided a dual split sorting process that created a single solution. Previously, We Fashion used a pick-to-light system for its 250 shops, preferring to outsource its e-commerce business to a third party. However, the company’s perception was that ecommerce would grow fast, and feared that the cost of external handling might rise likewise. The decision, therefore, was made to bring the outsourced e-commerce business in-house, the business case being that the sorter’s 14,400 tray/hr capacity would mean shop deliveries could be ended earlier in the day so that trucks could also depart earlier. This means that the e-commerce operation can now start immediately after the shop flow has ended. The business case has proved profitable.

Given that changes in retailing patterns make the customerdealing experience a key competitive tool, distributors cannot afford hiccups in their delivery systems caused by unplanned equipment breakdowns. Such equipment can be running 24/7, so progressive maintenance techniques are the key to achieving optimal availability and maximising operating life.