As online shopping experiences a significant uptick during the holiday season amid the global pandemic, warnings of “Shipageddon” have taken center stage. Increased worry over moving higher volumes of merchandise, tracking a greater number of packages and meeting on time delivery demands have required many retailers and parcel companies to implement new technologies to address these challenges.
With nearly 80 percent of distribution centers still operating manually with a limited labor pool1, more and more companies are realizing the value of addressing logistical dilemmas through robotic automation. From creating Distributed Manufacturing Systems (DMS) to optimize supply chain flow, to retrofitting current warehouse operations with highly reliable yet flexible robots, a greater number of companies are implementing advanced technology to achieve tangible benefits, especially when it comes to parcel sortation.
What is parcel sortation?
Simply put, parcel sortation is the process of identifying parcel items (i.e., envelopes, boxes, polybags, etc.), often on a conveyor, and sorting or further diverting them to specific destinations. In an effort to be more efficient and cost effective, a greater number of companies are transforming manual sortation operations into automated areas on the warehouse floor. Key areas where robotic parcel sortation is taking place include:
Inbound bulk receipt of items
Transforming bulk flow of items into singulated flow
Sortation / Diversion of parcels by size or type
Sortation / Diversion of parcels according to destination
Why robotic parcel sortation?
With robotic automation’s ability to effectively manage the high volume of parcels required to meet booming e-commerce demands, it’s no surprise that the parcel sortation market is expected to grow at a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of nearly 10% by 20262. Main benefits include:
Highly reliable workforce
As mentioned, many companies still employ manual workers for the task of sortation. This process is tedious and it can be difficult to maintain workers. From looking at codes while parcels are moving on a conveyor to pushing parcels down a chute (according to the destination), constant focus and movement is required. Using a robot frees skilled workers to perform higher value-added tasks, and the robot can operate 24 hours a day if needed to meet demands. Additionally, many facilities are not climate controlled which can be miserable for employees in extremely hot or cold climates, causing workers to be unhappy or even quit.
Something else to think about in the post-Covid environment is the responsibility to keep workers healthy. Companies that rely on human labor have been required to slow or stop production altogether at some point due to physical distancing requirements or sickness outbreaks. Fortunately, flexible automation enables companies to gain the agility needed to maintain productivity.
Greater volume control
At the onset of the global pandemic, e-commerce sales saw spikes of more than 50%3. This high volume of orders, combined with growing holiday demand, has prompted the need for higher throughput and more reliable systems. Robotic automation can help alleviate sortation bottlenecks often associated with surging volume demands.
Increased dexterity and accuracy
Parcel sortation robots today are equipped with perception systems that can determine the shape of each object and understand how to pick it up. Typically a blend of 3D vision and AI software, these systems allow robots to pick up a vast array of objects quickly and reliably with little to no human intervention. As a result, applications that were once thought impossible due to the large amount of variation are now being performed. Additionally, many perception systems have built-in label reading capabilities, enabling the robot to accurately sort boxes based on destination, size or weight. Alternatively, this can be done by a sensor array upstream which passes the information to the robot.
Cost effective solution
While there are distribution facilities that are designed from the ground up to be completely automated, there are far more manual distribution centers scattered across the country. Rather than tear down and completely rebuild these locations, it is more affordable to retrofit them using robotic automation. These “brown-field” facilities successfully mesh new technology with legacy systems and infrastructure, saving time and money while allowing for greater throughput and subsequent productivity gains.
Where is the Best Place to Start?
Each company has a unique set of pain points, so what might be a good fit for your business may not be a smart choice for another. That said, it is a good idea to contact a knowledgeable robot vendor to conduct a plant audit. This will help determine the best locations and options for robotic implementation in your facility and provide a detailed roadmap to help your business overcome the increased volumes and demands to better meet the demands of today’s consumers.
1 The Business Case for Robotics in Distribution Centers
, Honeywell Intelligrated, 2020
2 Global Parcel Sortation Systems Market Size
, Verified Market Research, 2020
3 The Business Case for Robotics in Distribution Centers
, Honeywell Intelligrated, 2020
Michael Castor is a Product Manager