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About the Author

Cliff Holste is Supply Chain Digest's Material Handling Editor. With more than 30 years experience in designing and implementing material handling and order picking systems in distribution, Holste has worked with dozens of large and smaller companies to improve distribution performance.

Logistics News

By Cliff Holste

March 13, 2013

Can Automated Solutions Reduce or Eliminate DC Congestion?

Blending Automated & Manual Operations for Maximum Benefit

The simplicity of utilizing pallet jacks and order picker trucks provides a high degree of operational flexibility and is therefore attractive to some distributors. However, the need to frequently adjust labor up or down depending on volume, along with the resultant nonproductive travel time and reoccurring traffic gridlock, represents a big problem to others.

Holste Says:

By deploying automated solutions companies can squeeze more capacity out of an existing facility or consolidate multiple manual facilities into a newly designed automated facility.
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Based on industry surveys conducted by SCD, these issues are often the drivers for the adoption of automation that can stabilize labor and avoid facility expansion or relocation to a larger facility. For example, the most commonly cited benefit of an automated picking sortation system is improved productivity as defined by greater throughput with less labor.

By deploying automated solutions companies can squeeze more capacity out of an existing facility or consolidate multiple manual facilities into a newly designed automated facility. In addition, deploying automated solutions can result in benefits in other areas as well. Examples commonly cited by users are as follows:

  • Greater throughput capability
  • Reduced lead times & improved customer service
  • Better space utilization
  • Increased production control
  • Better inventory control



  • Improved stock rotation
  • Lower stock levels
  • Reduced number of stock-outs
  • Reduced operation cost
  • Improved worker safety
  • Reduced losses from damage
  • Improved shipping accuracy


Balancing Automated and Manual Operations within the Same Solution

Companies looking to reduce labor fluctuations and/or increase throughput by deploying automation technologies do not have to sacrifice manual operational flexibility.

It is a fact that customer requirements are constantly changing with the addition of new customers and new marketing and business strategies. Therefore, a comprehensive system solution takes advantage of manual processes where flexibility and adaptability are key factors and automated operations where repetitive functions and high volume is required.

For example:

  • Value Added Services (VAS) like ticketing and non-standard case labeling may need to be processed off-line through a more “hands-on” manual subsystem. In other words, program the automated sortation system to recognize cases/orders that require “special handling” and sort them to a manual subsystem that is configured to efficiently process them.

  • Once the special handling process is completed, the cases/orders can be conveyed back into the automated sortation system for final sorting. The sorter speed and capacity will have to be adequately sized to handle this repetitive sorting function.

  • The same off-line approach holds true for building mixed case and rainbow type pallet loads.

  • Non-repetitive operations, especially those requiring a high degree of customization, should be processed in a subsystem that integrates manual operations with the appropriate level of automation. In this way, the need for operational flexibility, adaptability, and high performance can be insured.

By leveraging the capabilities of the WMS and/or WCS to including both primary and secondary sorting functions, the company can enjoy the benefits of automation and the flexibility of manual processing in a mutually exclusive, but still integrated, system configuration.

Final Thoughts

The principle advantages of material handling automation are related to improving the operational efficiency, throughput capacity, and accuracy of repetitive functions. As such, automation should not be perceived as the “ideal solution” for all of the unique processing requirements encountered in the typical DC.


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