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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.

November 15, 2017

Sorting It Out: Achieving Sortation System Success

Shippers Want to Know if There is a Sortation System That's Right for Their Operation


Carton picking, conveying and sorting equipment are considered to be essential to providing efficient and productive consumer goods order fulfillment operations. Shippers who take advantage of batch-order picking technology use conveyors and carton sorting systems to automatically consolidate customer orders for shipping. The combination of batch-order picking and sorting provides them with high volume shipping capability while lowering order picking and handling cost. Even though this method has been in widespread use for decades, there are shippers (large and small) who for various reasons have considered, but have not deployed, this technology in their operation. The following is our attempt to address a few of their concerns:

Holste Says...

Shippers who take advantage of batch-order picking technology use conveyors and carton sorting systems to automatically consolidate customer orders for shipping.

What do you say?

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Question: What are some of the first things a shipper needs to consider if it decides it might benefit from deploying a sortation system?

Response: There are a number of issues that need to be considered at the outset. For example:

  • Is manual sorting (utilizing a re-circulating conveyor loop) a possibility, or does the shipping volume dedicate mechanized sorting. The manual sorting option is limited to processing about 1,000 cartons per hour.

  • If automation is required – are the cartons conveyable and do they already contain a unique bar code identifier?

  • Determine processing requirement – what will the sorting system need to handle and at what rate (cartons per minute). The higher the sorting rate the higher the cost.

  • When you include the cost of the various sub-systems that are required to feed and takeaway cartons to and from an automated sorter, even the most basic entry level system will require an investment approaching three quarters to a million dollars or more. Therefore, ROI is a factor that will probably require analysis by a trusted advisor and/or industry expert.

  • Do you have the internal resources to develop the plans and specifications and handle the purchasing and project management phase of the project, or will you need to obtain outside assistance?

  • It is also important to consider the impact of changing from the existing manual operation to a more automated operation. Such as the skill set of personnel that will be required to operate and maintain the new system?

Question: What is the main reasons that sorting system fail to meet expectations? 

In situations where system performance does not meet expectations it’s generally due to insufficient planning in the concepting and development phase and failure to understand interrelated operational functions and requirements. For example: 

  • Having accurate and timely replenishment of inventory in active pick location is critical to maintaining system performance and customer service levels. If you don’t get that right (which is a process outside of the sorting system itself) system performance will suffer.

  • Insufficient after-sort buffering and shipping dock capacity can lead to system backups and shutdowns that will reduce throughput volume and cause shipping delays.

It should be noted that the quality of sorting equipment, scanners, PC/PLC controls, and conveyor system design being provided today is at its highest level. Standardization of equipment design and decades of industry experience have virtually eliminated trial and error methods. In addition, computer modeling and simulation is readily available to help optimize system performance. 

Can a sortation system be flexible and adaptable enough to meet future needs, as business requirements change?

As it relates to the sorter itself, there are several types of sorters available covering a wide range of handling characteristics and capacity. The type of sorter selected should be based on a minimum five year sales forecast. It’s Important to understand how future changes in products, SKU mix, order profiles, and customer demands for value added services will impact on system operations. There should be a well thought-out plan for expanding the sorter to accommodate more sort locations and for increasing throughput capacity. 

If you had to offer a few words of advice for shippers investigating whether sortation was right for them, what would it be?

Shippers need to understand that no matter how unique and specialized there operation may be, the chances are very good that there is a company (probably a competitor) doing something very similar and already enjoying the benefits of batch-order picking and automated sorting. That being said, there is no “one-size-fits-all”, or “out-of-the-box” solution to sorting system design. The proper, most cost effective system solution for your operation will evolve from a comprehensive analysis of you business data and specific order fulfillment requirements. Shortcutting this crucial planning process may result in not being able to enjoy the full value of your investment.  

Final Thoughts

The path to selecting and deploying an automated picking, conveying and sorting solution can be challenging, but also well worth it. A great place to start your planning process is at industry trade shows such as Modex 2018 in Atlanta, GA. April 9 thru 12, 2018. You can quickly check it out and pre-register at

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