8 Options for Parcel Sortation and Distribution
Thanks to the rise of ecommerce and omni-channel order fulfillment, parcel sortation has become an integral—and demanding—piece of the order fulfillment puzzle.
Warehouses, distribution centers, and retailers all need to find ways that they can optimize the processes that they use to sort and handle polybags, envelopes, and other parcels. Any inefficiencies in the process will lead to wasted time and effort, both of which hurt your bottom line by eating into your profit margins. Through automation, you may be able to improve your parcel sortation efforts.
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Below, we discuss some of the factors which have helped to make parcel sortation the norm throughout the industry, and offer four potential automated solutions that can help you improve your order accuracy, reduce order cycle time, and optimize efficiency throughout your operation.
Factors Helping to Make Parcel Sortation the Norm
It used to be that parcel sortation and distribution was handled entirely by workers, who would walk lines to pick orders.
This may have taken the form of piece picking (one worker picking an entire order), zone picking (one worker picking only the items from a certain section, or zone), or wave picking (one or multiple workers picking items for multiple orders at one time). Though these strategies worked for years, by today’s standards, they are an inefficient way of processing orders—for a couple of reasons.
The first is that it makes the operation heavily dependent on human labor, which is expensive. And if labor is in short supply during peak seasons, an operation may be limited in its ability to meet customer demand.
The second is that manual processing increases the likelihood of errors and shipping delays, making it more challenging to keep customers satisfied, happy, and returning for future orders.
For all of these reasons, most fulfillment and order processing operations have been making the move to automated sortation in order to improve their workflows.
Parcel Supply Chain Trends
By now, the average customer has fully embraced online shopping for an ever-increasing share of their purchases. Driven in large part by the rise of Amazon, this has led to a massive shift in buying patterns, which have had a trickle-down effect especially to consumer-focused retailers and ecommerce companies.
- Customers want their orders faster than ever, with same- or next-day shipping gaining in prominence, forcing retailers to process orders more quickly.
- Customers increasingly demand free shipping, forcing retailers to process orders with as little cost as possible in order to increase or maintain profit margins.
- Customers are placing smaller orders more frequently, decreasing average order value for retailers but increasing throughput requirements and complexity. More varied order sizes and shapes have also increased the likelihood of product mishandling by legacy equipment, which was traditionally built with “old metric” orders in mind.
With these factors in mind, it’s crucial that operations seeking an automated solution to their parcel sortation challenges understand all of the options available to them.
Parcel Sortation Solutions for Order Fulfillment
If you are considering implementing an automated sortation system to help with your parcel sortation and distribution needs, there are many options available for you to choose from. Which one is right for you will depend on a number of factors, including your operation’s peak rate, the variety of products that the system will handle, and the floorspace available to house the system.
1. Push Tray Sorters
A push tray sorter consists of individual trays which receive product that is inducted manually or by conveyor. These trays use a mechanically driven push bar in order to positively divert the product off of the tray as necessary for sortation, typically into a lane or chute.
Push tray sorters can be used to sort individual items directly into polybags or flats, or can be leveraged to sort polybags, envelopes, boxes, and other types of parcels. They are typically capable of handling a maximum of 7,000 to 8,000 units per hour.
Compared to many other options, a push tray sorter is a lower cost solution capable of providing effective parcel sortation. The technology can also have an inline integrated weigh scale to aid in delivery.
2. Inline Sortation using Narrow Belt Sorters
A narrow belt sorter (NBS) relies on a series of narrow strips, or belts, which carry product to be sorted.
They come in two varieties, which describe the angle of the divert: The NBS-90, with a 90-degree divert, and the NBS-30, with a 30-degree divert. Sortation is achieved through the use of either high-friction rollers (NBS-90) or fixed-angle wheels (NBS-30) which sit between the carrying belts and raise when triggered, to engage with the product and divert it off of the sorter. In the video above, you can see the NBS-90 in action, diverting product into containers at a right angle.
Because of the gaps which are inherent in narrow belt sorters, they are best leveraged for larger parcels and packages, as smaller parcels can fall between the belts. Throughput can reach 30-100 cartons per minute for the NBS-30 and 10-50 cartons per minute for the NBS-90. This is an affordable option for operations that have minimal available floor space and need to conserve space.
3. Tilt-tray Sorter
A tilt-tray sorter works in much the same way as a push tray (described above). Instead of leveraging a mechanical bar to divert product, the tray itself physically tilts, sending product down a chute or ramp as necessary. Items are inducted either manually or automatically onto the trays via induction stations at multiple locations throughout the loop.
Tilt-tray sorters offer some of the highest sorting rates when compared to other sortation systems. They are also capable of handling the most diverse range of product types, making them ideal for operations which handle many types of product. They are one of the more expensive systems available.
4. Cross-belt Sorter
A cross-belt works in much the same way as a tilt-tray sorter, and as such is often discussed side-by-side. The key difference is that, instead of leveraging trays which tilt to divert product, the section of the cross-belt which holds product is essentially a miniature conveyor which runs perpendicularly (crosswise) to the loop. This conveyor is activated to divert product. The cross-belt is capable of handling polybags, envelopes, boxes, and other parcels.
Also like tilt-tray sorters, cross-belt sorters offer some of the highest sorting rates when compared to other sortation systems and can handle a wide variety of product types, making them ideal for facilities handling a wide range of items. These are typically one of the more expensive sortation systems available.
5. Split-tray (Bombay) Sorter
Split-tray sorters, also called Bombay sorters, are ideal for high-speed automated sortation of small, lightweight items such as bagged garments, jewelry, pharmaceuticals, CDs, mail, books, and other parcels that are too small and light to be handled by a typical conveyor system.
An item on a Bombay Sorter falls through a trapdoor to arrive at its sorted location, hence the name. The items can be sorted into a chute for further processing or dropped directly into a carton or tote ready to ship to its customer.
Split-tray sorters can effectively sort 100-230 trays per minute. They are typically comparable in cost to push tray sorters.
6. Sliding Shoe Sorter
A sliding shoe sorter consists of a long, straight conveyor fitted with a series of “shoes,” which engage in order to divert product off of the sorter. This type of sortation system is fed by a single stream of products merged from multiple areas of a building upstream.
Though traditionally used to handle cases and larger packages, the rise of ecommerce has caused some manufacturers to modify their systems for polybags and parcel sortation as well.
Sliding Shoe sorters can handle a high peak rate (anywhere from 20 products per minute to hundreds of products per minute, depending on product size and weight). Because of the mechanics of the system and its positive divert, a wide range of materials can be handled. Sliding shoe sorters fall between push tray and tilt-tray sorters in terms of cost.
Micro-sortation leverages the same general mechanics and idea as a push- or tilt-tray sorter does. The key difference is that it is designed for smaller products, such as micro-polybags. As such, they are often leveraged in operations handling pharmaceuticals, cosmetics, jewelry, and other small products, and can sort directly into packaging.
A key benefit of micro-sortation is that you are using smaller trays, which allows you to increase throughput without increasing the footprint of the system. As a point of comparison, consider that a system that travels 100 feet per minute, and which is built with two-foot trays, is capable of sorting 50 trays per minute. A system that travels 100 feet per minute, but which consists of 6-inch trays, can sort 200 trays per minute—an increase of 4X.
8. AMR-based Sortation
AMR-based sortation can take many different forms depending on the specifics of your operation and the type of product that you handle.
In parcel sortation, it often looks like this: Individual robots carry product (which can be automatically or manually inducted onto them) to totes, shipping containers, gaylords or chutes in the floor. The AMR’s tray or crossbelt, carrying the product, tilts or powers to divert the product to its destination. When using floor models, items go down the chute, which feeds to a gaylord or other area for further processing.
Parceling It All Up
Though there are many options available to your fulfillment and order processing center when it comes to parcel sortation and distribution, finding the solution that is a RightFIT for your goals can be a challenge.
A trusted systems integrator can help you determine the most appropriate parcel sortation system for your needs, helping you increase profitability, reduce costly shipping errors, and increase overall productivity in today’s highly competitive global market.