The Future of Sortation Systems in Order Fulfillment
Sortation systems are one of the great drivers of efficiency in the world of order fulfillment and materials handling today. Think that statement’s a bit of a stretch? Consider this: From receiving to picking to packing and shipping, a state-of-the-art sortation system has the potential to impact nearly every aspect of your business in your warehouse or DC.
Recent advancements in automation have helped to make today’s sorters so chocked-full of technology that a single sorter has the potential to help order fulfillment operations become more efficient and cost-effective. But that doesn’t mean that innovation is a thing of the past when it comes to sortation technology; sorters are constantly evolving to better serve the needs of the industries and operations that they serve.
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Below we take a look at some of the biggest trends impacting sortation today, which are likely to shape the future of the technology.
Factors Impacting the Future of Sortation
1. Increased Flexibility
Automated sortation has been a big part of what has made modern order fulfillment possible because it’s cheaper, more efficient, and more scalable than sorting by hand. But that doesn’t mean that it’s perfect. One weak spot is a general lack of flexibility: Traditional sorter tech just isn’t that flexible.
On the one hand, most sortation tech relies on conveyors to actually move product from one place to another within a warehouse. For an established business or distribution center that doesn’t expect their business to change, this is typically fine. But for younger businesses or for those which regularly pivot, this can be a challenge: After all, nobody wants to change the configuration of their sorter on a yearly basis. It just isn’t feasible.
On the other hand is the fact that most sorters are built to handle products that fall within a certain range of specifications. As order sizes become more varied due to the rise of ecommerce, this increases the likelihood of both errors as well as damage to the machinery itself.
And finally, sorters typically perform a rather critical function within a facility. When the sorter goes down due to damage or failure, this causes chaos as all work grinds to a standstill: There isn’t typically enough redundancy built into the system to account for such an issue.
For all of these reasons, we see the future of sortation being driven by a desire for flexibility. Flexibility to change the layout of the system, flexibility to handle multiple types of product, flexibility to account for unplanned downtime.
Autonomous mobile robots (AMRs) are one new category of technology that can be leveraged in sortation while providing this desired increase in flexibility, and which we see taking on a much more prominent role in sortation in the future. And truly, they check all of the boxes outlined above:
- AMRs don’t require dedicated floorspace, making them more flexible compared to conveyor-based sorters. In most cases, if an operation needs to make a change to routes, it can be achieved in weeks instead of months or even years as it might traditionally.
- AMRs can handle a range of products, making them ideal for operations handling increasingly varied order sizes and shapes.
- AMRs have built-in redundancy, making an operation-halting scenario much less likely. If one bot breaks down or needs repair or maintenance, there is always another ready to take its place.
2. Polybags are the Packaging of Tomorrow (and Today)
Order fulfillment today has been moving more and more towards the use of polybags as packaging, driven in large part to an increase in e-commerce orders. And the reasons for this increase in polybag use is a good one: They are the least expensive form of packaging for apparel and other durable consumer goods.
Shipper’s costs have come under pressure because consumers have come to expect “free” shipping. Polybags can cost as little as $.012 per bag vs. $0.75 to $1.50 for a small carton. And because they pack tightly in parcel trailers, using them instead of cartons reduces the amount of air, or wasted space, in a shipment. This allows shippers to avoid dimensional weight charges typical of other types of packages.
These cost savings are driving a shift in the world of e-commerce and order fulfillment, as more and more operations need entire shipping systems built to handle polybags.
The challenge with increased use of polybags is that they are one of the more difficult products to convey and sort reliably. This difficulty mostly stems from the fact that the polybags, being pliable, can become caught on different components of certain types of sorters, which has the potential to damage the packaging, the product, and the sorter itself.
Polybags today are most reliably handled on belt sorters, but shoe sorters are being reengineered to handle polybags in the future. It is possible that other types of sorters will be retrofitted or reengineered as well, especially as polybags become more and more ubiquitous as a packaging material. This trend is expected to continue into the future as polybags and other packaging becomes more common.
3. Increased E-commerce is Leading to More Automated Goods-to-Person (G2P)
E-commerce is also driving other changes in the world of sortation, particularly in the application of goods-to-person (G2P) systems.
As e-commerce continues to grow, average order size and order frequency are changing. Today’s buyers tend to make orders much more frequently, but the order size is smaller than it used to be. Automated goods-to-person systems are a way for order fulfillment operations to lower their costs and increase efficiency in a world of smaller and more frequent order.
As such, G2P systems are increasing in their speed and efficiency. E-commerce operations with a moderate volume can find it more efficient to pick discrete orders with automation, making a G2P system more ideal for their needs.
That being said, E-commerce operations with a moderate to high volume typically find it more efficient to make use of batch picking automation that uses unit sorters like tilt-tray and cross-belt sorters to separate discrete orders. Automated G2P will likely not suit their needs as well as other systems.
There is also a new sorter beginning to emerge in the industry that acts as a combination of a sorter and goods-to-person technology: The pouch/pocket sorter. This sorter is well-suited to e-commerce orders and requires less handling and time than traditional unit sorters. Product is batch picked like with tilt-tray sorters, but the pouch/pocket sorter delivers orders directly to packing stations without the need for an additional touch or conveyor
The Future of Sortation
Sortation technology is constantly evolving to meet the current needs of the market. In 2021, the most important factors driving this evolution are a need and desire for increased flexibility; an ever greater reliance on polybags and other modern packaging; and the continuing emergence of ecommerce driving smaller and more varied orders.