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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

June 17, 2015

Logistics News: Extending The Serviceable Life Of A Typical DC Conveying System

Instead of Replacing, Save Time & Money by Modifying Existing Conveyor Equipment & Controls

Holste Says:

Streamlining processes and taking full advantage of embedded equipment and system features should be the first steps in the quest to keep DC systems performing at their highest level.
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Previous Columns by Cliff Holste

Sorting It Out : Depending On Size, Shippers Think Differently About Order Fulfillment Operations

Sorting It Out: Conveyor System Capacity Constraints Impact Productivity

Sorting It Out: Project Planning Ideas

Logistics News : Managing Security Risks

Logistics News : Maintaining Workplace Safety During Peak Shipping Season


Older conveying systems may not be capable of satisfying the diverse handling requirements of today’s multi-channel marketplace. Shippers therefore, may be considering replacing existing conveyors to increase handling and processing capability. However, it could be that some or all of the additional capabilities you now need already exist but have not been recognized. The following are examples of some of the “built-in” equipment and/or system features that may improve handling capability and capacity.


One of the major challenges shippers face today relates to the down-sizing of packaging. Manufacturers are being forced to reduce package sizes to better accommodate demand for smaller units and/or quantities. This tends to increase the volume of small to very small (< 9″ lg.) cartons that have to be handled on conveyor and sorting systems.

The majority of powered roller conveyor installed in consumer goods distribution centers, are equipped with 1.9″ diameter carrying rollers spaced at 3″ centers. This works well when the smallest carton is 9″ long, or longer. Cartons shorter than 9″ can get stuck in the space between the rollers increasing the possibility of jams, frequent shut-downs, and product damage.

The good news is that a “fix” for this small carton handling problem may already be built-in. This is because when conveyor side frames are manufactured, the axle holes for the carrying rollers are punched at 1″ spacing. Therefore, if the conveyor needs to handle cartons less than 9″ in length, the carrying rollers can be spaced at 2″centers. Driving all those additional rollers may require an increase in motor horsepower along with other minor mechanical adjustments easily completed by the conveyor service provider. Once the modifications are completed the existing system will be able to handle a larger range of small cartons.


Bob Babel, VP Implementation Services at Forte (recently acquired by Swisslog) points out that another “fix-it” possibility is on systems that have mechanical sensors in the accumulation conveyor that no longer activate reliably (especially on small, and/or light weight cartons) and can be a performance as well as a maintenance issue. Babel recommends replace them with photo eye sensors. Retrofit kits for this fix are available from most conveyor manufacturers. This modification could be done at the same time additional carrying rollers are added as described above.


Many shippers are experiencing higher case shipping volumes, which is once again the result of the higher order frequency of small packages. A good example can be found in the typical shipping sortation system. Many of these systems are capable of providing higher sorting rates than what was initially required. With a few simple equipment changes, like changing the ratio of the drive sprockets and re-calibrating the sorter tracking system (usually done automatically), higher speeds and sorting rates can be achieved.


Another example where capacity can be increased would be to reduce gaps between cases at critical merge points and at the induction to the sorter, which will immediately increase throughput capacity. Control and software upgrades are readily available.


You may also be surprised to find out that your current 1 or 2 level high picking module may be capable of supporting a 2nd or 3rd level. While you are in the picking module (if cartons are being picked from pallets) check the amount of clear space over the top of a full pallet load – because you may have sufficient space to add a shelf of carton flow lanes.


The above modifications are actually quite common and should be considered before making a large expenditure for new equipment. For more info – view a short video clip provided by Forte Industries

Mr. Babel shared the following additional thoughts:


“With thorough maintenance, the investment in a material handling system can perform for decades. The Beiersdorf DC (above video) is 18 years in operation and it runs as well as when they opened. I have been in many other facilities that in 5 years there are areas of the system that need replacing due to ‘fix-it-when-it-breaks’ mentality”.


“So often I visit sites where what appears to be a throughput issue is really a lack of understanding and coordination between areas in the DC. Most operations get a picking requirement and they concentrate on getting it all on the conveyor as quickly as possible. This often results in backups, jams, and other issues. Systems work best at a steady state, balancing the movement through the areas results in the continuous, high throughput the system was designed for. In many systems the personnel assigned to servicing the aftersort lines are too few for the staff assigned to picking. Aesop’s ‘Tortoise and the Hare’ fable applies to DCs”.


Industry experts know that oftentimes real payback can be found in thoroughly examining order processing, and smoothing out the peaks and valleys in receiving, inventory, picking, and shipping systems. Streamlining processes and taking full advantage of embedded equipment and system features should be the first steps in the quest to keep DC systems performing at their highest level.

Final Thoughts

The bottom line is that by making a few equipment and system operational changes you can pick more SKUs, handle a larger range of carton sizes, and ship more volume – all with essentially the same, albeit “enhanced”, system.


Recent Feedback

Great article. I am a little suprised not to see BNSF in the mix while I understand their financial mode/operation is a little different. 

That would only give a complete perspective with all the players in the pool.

Senior Consultant
May, 22 2016

Surprised to see Home Depot fall off the list; thought they were winning with Sync?

Mike O'Brien
Senior editor
Access Intelligence
May, 26 2016

Using the right tool for the right job has always been a best practice and one of the reasons, we feel, that RFID has never taken off in the DC as exponentially as pundits have been forecasting since 2006. While these results may seem surprising to those solely focused on barcode scanning, the adoption of multi-modal technologies in the DC makes perfect sense for greater worker efficiency and productivity.

Julie Leonard
Marketing Director
Jun, 27 2016

The IoT Platform in this year's (2016) Hype Cycle is on the ascending side, entering the "Peak of Inflated Expectation" area. How does this compare to the IoT positions of the previous years, which have already peaked in 2015? Isn't this contradicting in itself?

Editor's Note: 

You are right, Internet of Things (IoT) was at the top of the Garter new technology hype curve not long ago. As you noted, however, this time the placement was for “IoT Platforms,” a category of software tools from a good number of vendors to manage connectivity, data communications and more with IoT-enabled devices in the field.

So, this is different fro IoT generally, though a company deploying connected things obviously needs some kind of platform – hoe grown or acquired – to manage those functions.

Why IoT generically is not on the curve this year I wondered myself.



Carsten Baumann
Strategic Alliance Manager
Schneider Electric
Aug, 19 2016

I agree totally with Mr. Schneider.

I have always lived by "put it in writing" all my work life.  I am a firm believer of the many benefits of putting everything in writing and I try to teach it to as many people as I can.

This "putting in writing" can also be used for almost anything else.  Here are some general benefits (only some) of "putting in writing":

1. Everything is better understood between parties involved.  There are lots of people types who need something visual to improve their understanding.
2. Everyone can read to review and correct anything misunderstood.  This will ensure that all parties concerned confirm the details of the agreements as correct.  This is further enhanced by having all parties involved sign off on a hard copy or confirm via reply email.
3. Everything has a proof.  Not to belittle the element of trust among parties involved, it is always safest to have tangible proof of what was agreed on.
4. There will be a document to refer to at any time by any one who needs clarification.
5. The documentation can be useful historical data for any future endeavor.  It provides inputs for better decisions on related situations in the future.
6. This can also be compiled and used to teach future new team members.  "Learn from the past" it is said.

There are many more benefits.  Mr. Schneider is very correct about his call to "put it in writing".

Jo Ann Tudtud-Navalta
Materials Management Manager
Chong Hua Hospital, Cebu City, Philippines
Aug, 21 2016

U.S. companies are reshoring and foreign companies are investing in U.S. locations to be in close proximity to the U.S. market for customer responsiveness, flexibility, quality control, and for the positive branding of "Made in USA".

Reshoring including FDI balanced offshoring in 2015 as it did in 2014. In comparison, in 2000-2007 the U.S. lost net about 200,000 manufacturing jobs per year to offshoring. That is huge progress to celebrate!

The Reshoring Initiative Can Help. In order to help companies decide objectively to reshore manufacturing back to the U.S. or offshore, the nonprofit Reshoring Initiative's free Total Cost of Ownership Estimator can help corporations calculate the real P&L impact of reshoring or offshoring.

Sandy Montalbano
Reshoring Initiative
Aug, 24 2016

 Good article!  I am sending this to my colleagues who work with me.  We have to keep this in mind.  Thanks!

Transportation Manager
Aug, 30 2016

SCM is all about getting the order delivered to the Customer on date/ time requested because happy Customers = Revenue. Using the right tools to do the right job is important and SCM is heavily dependent on sophisticated ERP systems to get right real data info ASP.

I've worked in a DC with more than 400,000 line items and measured the Productivity of Pickers by how many "picks" per day.

I've learned that one doesn't have to remind Germany about your EDI orders.

Ian Jansen
Sep, 14 2016

Challenge - to build and sustain effective relationships at the level of the organizations that are responsible for effectively coordinating and colaborating in an otherwise highly competitive environment 

Don Benson
Warehouse Coach
Sep, 15 2016

Of course we all need to up our game. We need to move with the times, and always be one step ahead of what the future will bring.

Fulfillment Logistics UK Ltd
Oct, 02 2016

Thanks for the article, but I know there's a lot more to this issue than just the pay rates. Please check out my blogs on the subject at

Mike Dargis
President of asset-based carrier based in the Midwest
Zip Xpress Inc. (at
Oct, 03 2016