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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

November 4, 2015

Logistics News: Automating Labor Intensive Operations

Blending Automated & Manual Operations for Maximum Benefit

Holste Says:

By deploying automated solutions, companies can squeeze more capacity out of an existing operation or consolidate multiple operations into a single automated facility.
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Previous Columns by Cliff Holste

Sorting It Out: Shippers Looking To Increase System Capacity Are Surprised To Find It May Already Exist!

Sorting It Out: For Shippers - Benefits Of Real-Time Control In The DC Are Huge!

Sorting It Out: Shippers Looking to Improve Operations Choose Customer Centric Approach

Sorting It Out: Productivity is a Crucial Factor in Measuring Production Performance

Sorting It Out: Packaging Construction Impacts on Logistics Operations


During the busiest order fulfillment seasons of the year DC congestion caused by the influx of temporary labor can contribute to safety issue that may also inhibit shipping operations. This is especially true for shippers that depend on mostly manual operations. The simplicity of pallet jacks and order picker trucks provides a high degree of operational flexibility and is therefore attractive. However, the need to frequently adjust labor up or down depending on volume, presents major HR, staffing and operational challenges.

Based on industry surveys, these issues are often the drivers for the adoption of automation that can stabilize labor and avoid or delay facility expansion and/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 per labor hour. Another way to look at it is that the labor component is less incremental and not directly tied to volume.

By deploying automated solutions, companies can squeeze more capacity out of an existing operation or consolidate multiple operations into a single 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

Blending Automated and Manual Processes

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: In the early 90’s material handling system providers developed various automated methods for systematically printing and applying shipping labels to the side, top, or end of each carton. The following illustration represents a typical standalone printer/applicator solution:

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 subsystem that is configured to efficiently process them.

The same off-line or standalone approach holds true for building various types of pallet loads. Here some combination of manual and/or robotic technology may be the optimum solution as shown in the following illustrations.

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 operational efficiency, throughput capacity, and order accuracy. However, automation should not be considered as the “ideal solution” for all of the unique processing requirements encountered in the typical DC.

The next best opportunity to learn more about automated system technologies can be found at MODEX 2016 April 4 – 7, 2016 in Atlanta, GA. Check it out at:



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