Over decades fast sortation conveyors have been developed for special applications, like garments, shoe boxes and assorted parcels, and while these perform well there is a risk that the more generalised sorting conveyors will become outmoded because of the disruptive changes caused by e-commerce that puts high store on meeting same-day deliveries.

One sign of the times that is pushing for new sortation designs is the big increase in small and lightweight parcels coming from China which is making it harder for conventional sorters to process such parcels within delivery time frames expected by ever-more demanding consumers. Behind this trend is e-commerce which leaves postal service companies struggling with parcel increases from China running at monthly growth rates of 10%.

The impact of this means that conventional cross-belt sorters have difficulty processing such parcels because they are lightweight, of different sizes and shapes that roll easily around the corners of the conveyors, says conveyor specialist, Eurosort. To solve that problem, Eurosort developed a split tray sorter well suited for mixed mail. Raised edges on each split tray prevents parcels from rolling off, and after triggering, the rapidly-opened trays makes for accurate parcel drops via chutes directly into mailbags. A simple method of replacing chutes with roll containers allows for increased quantities, and because the sorter is modular it can be easily extended if and when required. Depending on parcel product types, machine sorting capacity can vary from 9,000 to 28,000 trays per hour.

Fast sortation conveyors are not cheap so it’s important to break down their running costs. Energy will likely feature large in those costs. With that in mind, Nike’s vast China Logistics Centre (200,000 mt2) chose Crisplant’s LS-400 cross belt and tilt tray sorters which use linear synchronous motor technology to cut energy consumption by 75% compared with conventional sorter technologies. If conveyor belts are to be used, then some, like AmpMiser belts, can save up to 50% of the energy needed for power transmission. Another significant running cost issue can be maintenances and this should always be proactive rather than reactive because the latter reacting to a breakdown in a market that can be merciless where there is failure to deliver on promised times could mean permanent loss of future business from disappointed buyers.

Given the large investment sums involved with fast sortation conveyors and all the necessary interface equipment, great care is needed not only in choosing the right sorter but also the right equipment supplier. On the supplier issue, the routes to go down could include a systems integrator, the hardware supplier, a pure design house and a third party distribution company with relevant warehouse operating experience. At one time it could be said that the systems integrator would have been a wise choice because they would offer best-ofbreed hardware without prejudice. Today, however, after numerous mergers and acquisitions, the leading conveyor companies with a wide range of sorters and their own, in-house software developers would probably be the best choice, bearing in mind the choice should not depend wholly on tender price alone.

Apart from the usual background checks on potential suppliers, like their track record and type of nationwide, after-sales service commitments, one key issue to look at is the kit’s flexibility for supporting business growth, volatile market conditions and internal changes in production/distribution processes. Visiting sites that use such conveyors can also be useful.