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Cliff Holste

Supply Chain Digest
Material Handling Editor

Logistics News - Sorting It Out

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.

October 11, 2017

Sorting It Out: Blending Automated & Manual Operations for Maximum Benefit

Choosing Processing Methods that Yield Best Results


The simplicity of utilizing pallet jacks and order picker trucks provides a high degree of operational flexibility and is therefore attractive to some shippers. However, this level of simplicity may not be cost effective in the long run especially if it inhibits growth. A better strategy includes blending automated or semi-automated methods with manual operations. By adopting this strategy, along with appropriate IT system support, such as WMS and/or WCS, shippers can increase yield without incurring incremental labor cost or expanding the facility. Examples of the typical benefits commonly cited 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

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


Holste Says...

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

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For example:

  • Item Picking – is for the most part a manual operation. However, when augmented with automated product-to-person systems such as horizontal and/or vertical carousals, and when equipped with hands free computer directed voice technology, the labor component can be optimized. Another approach is to integrate picking carts that are equipped this GPS or perhaps consider deploying robots specifically designed for item picking.
  • Value Added Services – like ticketing and customized packaging may need to be processed offline through a more “hands-on” manual process. In other words, program the automated shipping sortation system to recognize customer orders that require “special handling” and sort them to a workstation that is configured to efficiently process them. Once the special handling process is completed, the orders can be transferred back into the handling system.
  • Repetitive Operations – such as building mixed case and rainbow pallet loads using robots can provide significant labor saving advantages over manual palletizing methods.
  • 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 scalability can be insured.

 A word of caution: 

Shippers are being advised that AGVs (Automated Guided Vehicles) or driverless pallet jacks (pictured on right) are the best choice for increasing efficiency and productivity in the warehouse. However, devising a formula for ROI is often difficult, even impossible when considering the potentially huge swings in seasonal volume. While industry service providers argue in favor of the efficiency of the technology, business managers are more interested in solutions that best serve their specific requirements. When you consider that more than 80% of all DCs have <100,000 square feet of space, a few pallet dollies and forklifts often prove far more cost effective than retooling a warehouse facility with tape, lasers, or unmanned vehicles to move pallet loads to the dock.

By leveraging the capabilities of the WMS and/or WCS to including both primary and secondary sorting functions, the shipper 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 operational efficiency, throughput capacity, and accuracy of repetitive functions. As such, automation should not necessarily be perceived as the “ideal solution” for all of the unique processing requirements encountered in the typical DC. However, enhancing manual operations with appropriate levels of automation can often increase productivity and workplace safety.


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