Sortation and conveyor system providing solutions to moving products quickly and efficiently

If you enjoyed the engineering involved in building a marble roller coaster as a child, chances are you’ll appreciate the trends in warehouse conveyor and sortation systems. Products are moved on belts at dizzying speeds — around multiple curves, occasionally up sharp inclines high above a distribution floor, and back down to shop level — all while lanes of products merge and sort along the way. Other times, however, the solutions are much simpler and more affordable.

As market influences continue to throw curveballs at the material handling, packaging, and supply chain industries, advancements in conveyor and sortation systems are providing new, creative solutions to keep up.

“The confluence of growing holiday sales volumes, hiring challenges and supply chain complexities mean that this year, facilities need to manage even more orders with limited staffing while facing inconsistent and unpredictable waves of inventory due to backlogs and upstream supply chain complications,” said Rush Fullerton, vice president of business development at Louisville-based MHS.

Working together, sortation, integration, and conveyor systems are critical to moving tremendous volumes of products throughout a warehouse with precision, accuracy, and speed — and no time of the year is as important as right now, at the peak of the holiday season.

Sorters

Fullerton said that MHS clients are looking for sorters with the maximum uptime, the share of time when the equipment is available for operations. Systems must be built for improved uptime with high-quality components and a design conducive to quick, easy serviceability, and robust life cycles. And because operations are being stretched to move larger and larger volumes, and often with less labor, throughput rate and accuracy are also major priorities.

“Sorters are the lifeblood of the distribution center,” Fullerton said.

For sorters and integrators, the emphasis has been on handling more variety in product size and packaging type.

“Many parcel distribution and retail distribution and fulfillment operations are looking for solutions with increased versatility to handle an extensive range of items, from very small and light items to heavy, bulky ones,” Fullerton said.

The machines must also be compatible with a greater assortment of packaging materials, like corrugated cases, bubble mailers, and polybags.

Growth in online ordering and direct-to-consumer models have also changed who is responsible for moving and sorting bulky, irregularly shaped items and how frequently, according to Fullerton. The need to move large “non-conveyable” items like appliances and exercise equipment for retail replenishment is also leading to new solutions. While logistics operations traditionally handled those, retailers have since taken the baton with their own established last-mile delivery method, or consumers simply haul them home themselves.

“While these items are incompatible with traditional conveyor and sortation systems, moving them manually is labor-intensive and can pose the threat of strains or other injuries. Some operations are investigating alternative automated approaches, such as utilizing automated guided vehicles designed specifically to accommodate these items,” he said.

In one case, MHS helped UPS expand and update its 257,000-square-foot Louisville Centennial Ground Operations Hub to keep up with “explosive e-commerce volumes,” Fullerton said. They modernized the facility with fully automated sortation and conveyor in their significantly expanded footprint, helping them to more than double their throughput, from 39,000 to 85,000 parcels per hour. For Dutch-based global flower supplier Hoek Group, MHS designed, created, and installed an advanced conveying and sorting solution for handling flower buckets and boxes of a wide variety.

“The heart of the system is our HC Sorter, a sliding shoe sorter that features a modular design equipped with single- or double-sided shoes for easy scalability and configuration to the needs of each customer. The complete project resulted in a doubling of efficiency for Hoek Group, allowing them to process more orders and adjust capacity to meet customer demand,” Fullerton said.

Conveyors

On the conveyor side, system manufacturers are also addressing similar client concerns. The nationwide industry labor shortage has forced many Multi-Conveyor customers to upgrade to automated lines or processes that were previously done manually. It was a repetitive, piecemeal process getting products into the proper packaging needed for transport or shelf-stacking, said George Packard, an account manager at the Winneconne, Wis. company. Multi-Conveyor takes hand-packing stations to the next level with either semi-automatic packaging or fully automated conveyor systems that can align, turn, rotate, elevate or flip an individual product or cases, Packard said.

“This decision also increases the volume of production in our customer’s favor. The ROI of the initial equipment investment can be realized in a very short period of time based on faster line speeds or larger production runs,” Packard said.

He said that escalated conveyor designs that can solve those mundane tasks may include:

  • Integrated roller insert conveyor belting for alignment and sorting

  • Elementary rotation devices for radius turning of boxes or cases for labeling or ink-jet print

  • Merging technologies to seamlessly combine various lines into one main packaging area

  • Conveyors to stack and reload both empty and full pallets

Even semi-automated packaging is better for the employees as well, Packard said.

“Concepts are designed with operators in mind, giving them the mechanical boost needed to perform their job more efficiently with ergonomic workstations to combat healthier postures or even social distancing when applicable,” he said.

In some cases, Multi-Conveyor has found a client’s solution by looking up. In some cases, Multi-Conveyor has found a client’s solution by looking up. To help a client conserve critical floor space, one manufacturer requested an elevated conveyor that moved products above headroom throughout the warehouse — freeing up critical production space below.

And while very large, established global distribution centers are on the leading edge of artificial intelligence and advanced automation, the average manufacturer is nowhere near using that degree of technologically advanced or sophisticated approach, Packard said.

“Many customers are several years behind this space-age technology, and many of them actually want to stay that way! They are picking robust, tried, and true industry-favored, proven conveyor concepts over the investment of incredibly smart systems that can, in some cases, overachieve the mission at hand,” he said.

Instead, they rely on upgrading older systems to Multi-Conveyors’ most practical conveyor designs that will save money by converting their operation to a smaller footprint on the shop floor, allowing for new lines or additional volume of storage, Packard said. This human-to-machine conveyor conversion factors in moderate to extreme line speeds based on the customer’s demand.

They are designed to interact with other original equipment manufacturers and are built with the flexibility of production growth for future years. Packard said that longevity, sanitation, agency compliance, and safety are also factored into the construction of every system.

The company offers Slim-Fit™ and Success lines of standard, pre-engineered 24/7 workhorse conveyor systems, including super sanitary options, however, Packard said that Multi-Conveyor is one of only several niche and truly custom conveyor manufacturers in the packaging industry.

“Projects are brought to us that sound monumental to our prospect, but we can often show them a previously built system that works for their requirements, within reach of their cost parameters, without starting from scratch to build an insanely innate system,” he said. “For nearly 75% of projects brought to us, we opt to change at least some part of the physical layout, chain or belt types, ergonomics or functionality in our customer’s favor. It can be as simple as getting the required straight length before or after a curve, or as complicated as a complete redraw of their system. The goal is to provide a more functional, cost-effective system while maximizing productivity or saving essential floor space.”

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