The Future of Sortation Systems in Ecommerce 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.
Free Guide: Choosing a Sortation System for Your DC
Two big advances in sortation technology that will be blazing trails into the future are an increased ability to handle polybag packaging (which has become all but ubiquitous as packaging today) and a merging of sortation with automated goods-to-person systems.
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.
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 Bottom Line
The growing field of e-commerce has wrought major change in the world of order fulfillment and sortation. A push to reduce packaging and shipping costs and a trend towards automated goods-to-person technology has already begun, and will only continue to change the way that orders are handled, processed, and delivered.