Tech ROI: Sortation

Latest trends in sortation

One of the most commonly cited trends in sortation is the need for higher and higher speeds (up to 300 cases a minute, according to some experts). Sorter manufacturers are hard at work on the challenge.

FKI Logistex is addressing the situation by experimenting with a complete system solution. “The decisions are made when the box is actually placed on the conveyor system, allowing it multiple routes to get to where it needs to go,” says Chuck Waddle, vice president of sales and marketing for FKI Logistex.

“For instance, on a multiple pick system, if you could do a simple divert coming out of a pick module and go to certain zones on a particular sorter, you could reach rates of 400-600 cartons a minute, depending on the zone that you get the carton to. We believe that our technology with the belt sorter will allow us to merge onto a single sorter.

“Say this sorter is doing 200 cases a minute for 300 feet. If you could actually get the product that needs to get to zone 1 for the first 50 feet, and go to zone 2 for the next 50 feet, you’d get 200 cases a minute for each of those zones. We think it’s the proper way to go for the future, but it’s going to require some technology to get there.”

HK Systems has developed the HK Systems Indexing Servo Slug Merge technology to tackle the issue of higher throughput. “The induction technology — the ability to merge cases at very high rates of speed — is the real trick to accomplishing high-speed sortation,” notes Larry Frey, senior vice president, unit handling systems, HK Systems.

The Indexing Servo Slug Merge has the ability to sort up to 245 cartons a minute, based on an 18-inch average carton. “The control system that makes all this occur is quite sophisticated in terms of the release algorithms that allow the equipment and software to do what needs to be done,” says Frey.

“The unique thing about the Indexing Servo Slug Merge is that we’re using much more conventional equipment. We can have up to 16 lines feeding the single merge, just using standard accumulation transportation belt conveyors in the process. This eliminates the expensive wide belts or tubular combiners or slat combiners that are used in this process.”

New sortation products

Here is a look at some of the latest sortation products.

Hytrol’s newest sorters, the ProSort SC1 and SC2, are belt-driven pivot wheel sortation conveyors. According to Hytrol, these new conveyors fill the gap between low-rate pushers, plows and pop-up diverters and high rate ProSort 100 and 200 series units. The SC series features include a continuous roller-bed frame, one belt that runs the length of the sorter, and a split-bank diverter control that allows the sorter to reach speeds of 300 feet per minute. Single-sided and two-sided diverting are available.

FKI Logistex introduced the Unisort LBS (Linear Belt Slat) sorter this year. The LBS uses narrow (five-inch wide) belts, which minimize the gaps between the cartons to near zero and allow a high throughput (up to 600 feet/minute). This sorter can convey products that require no gaps between the slats, such as letters, boxes with straps, loose dangling pieces, and baggage with straps.

SK Daifuku introduced a new sorter this year. The straight-type cross-belt sorter (Model SKS-S) allows feeding from a conveyor directly into the sorter. The sorter has a linear-induction motor drive and non-contact cross-belt power. It is well-suited for such items as books, envelopes and CDs, and can handle pieces weighing up to 11 pounds.

Siemens Dematic has a new high-rate system called a QuadSorter, a four-cells-per-carrier crossbelt sorter that the company claims can sort more than 41,000 items/hour. The QuadSorter can handle products ranging in size from 2” X 2” X .05” to 31.5” X 35.5” X 23.5”. The tandem and synchronized modes allow larger items to be inducted onto multiple cells, where carriers will activate simultaneously and divert to the destination. Each of the belted quad-cell carriers can operate independently, either in tandem or synchronized mode.

Ambaflex crafted the Spiralveyor vertical conveyor as a space-saving device. The Spiralveyor has one drive motor and runs in continuous motion with low noise. The conveyor is shipped complete and can be installed in minutes.

HK Systems’ latest sorter is the Whispersort, an all-electric high-speed select type sorter. The unit has a breakaway pin; in the event of a jam on the system, the pin breaks away and is easy to repair. The sorter can operate at more than 600 feet per minute, according to the manufacturer.

RFID and Sortation: The Future Is Closer

The dawning of the age of radio frequency identification (RFID) in sortation is imminent. Siemens Dematic recently teamed up with Matrics, Inc., a provider of UHF electronic product code (EPC)-compliant RFID technology, for integration testing of RFID with Siemens’ high-rate conveying and sorting technologies used in distribution and warehouses. The two companies implemented a conveying and sorting test loop, with favorable results: 100% of read rates and diverts were achieved. According to Siemens, this prototype demonstrates the ability to read cases in sequence at greater than 200 cases/minute with a minimum gap of six inches.

The integration of RFID into high-speed sortation is a leap over a giant hurdle, according to Joe Dunlap, RFID program lead for Siemens Dematic’s Supply Chain Solutions group: “Among RFID industry insiders, this has been perceived as one of the most difficult obstacles for case level tracking.”

More and more retailers, led by Wal-Mart, are using RFID either in place of or as a potential replacement for traditional barcodes for improved inventory tracking and asset management. “That’s probably the biggest trend, the transition from bar code to RFID,” says Ken Ruehrdanz, manager, marketing communications, Siemens Dematic. “It’s coming along fast. This successful integration shows that we can handle the high sortation rates that are required in today’s market.

“The advent of the RFID era means that system integrators such as Siemens will need to see through the transition from the bar code (the UPC) to the EPC. What that means for us as a system integrator is that we have to integrate the solutions now using RFID.

“That doesn’t mean that we’re going to have to redesign our sorters. The items are still going to be the same size and weight, and we still have to do it a high rate, but now we have to replace our bar code scanners with RFID readers, and then we’re going to have to deal with all the software and control applications. We’ll be able to have the visibility when it’s all in our system, so it will have to tie into the supply chain execution systems, which we are already doing.”

The future of sortation

What does the future hold for sortation and sortation technology?

Phil Miller, president, AmbaFlex: “It’s always going to involve higher throughput, more accuracy to maximize the throughput, trying to do more with less. That’s kind of been an ongoing theme, and I really don’t foresee that changing.

“With that in mind, equipment suppliers need to be more keenly aware of the uptime of their machinery. They’ll have to use more state-of-the-art components, in terms of longer life, better life cycle cost for the end user, and reliability in terms of increased uptime.

“Modular conveyors are going to be a very important aspect of anybody’s machinery. They have to be modular, more adaptable for changes in the field.”

Ken Ruehrdanz, manager, marketing communications, Siemens Dematic: “What I would predict is an increase in sortation rates. It was 30 cartons a minute, then 60, then the 100 carton/minute barrier was a big deal. Then it was 120, 150, then it was 200, now it’s in excess of 200. That trend will continue.

“Also, I think that there will be improvements in user reconfigurability and modularity, so that there will be an overall simplification of the sortation device. From that would come improved performance and improved return on investment. The sorter will perform better for more value and less cost.”

Chuck Waddle, vice president, sales and marketing, automation division, FKI Logistex: “I think the future requirements for sortation will be smaller and more diverse products being sorted, because I think in the future we’ll get more and more supply as required. We’ll get down to where the store will be supplied quicker, and thus we will have to sort more on time, more in line with Just-In-Time delivery.

“I also believe that in the future, sortation will be more tied to the demands of the store than to the demands of the warehouse. We will be sorting and accumulating and shipping goods based on the location in the store. For instance, if Kroger needs an item in aisle 2, why mix it with stuff that’s going across 10 pallets? Put all of aisle 2 together, pull it out, and thus save manpower in the store. The stores will be controlling the requirements of sortation.”

Larry Frey, senior vice president, unit handling systems, HK Systems: “My belief is that higher speeds will be required by the major companies, and then there will be a filtering down of that technology that will improve the current capabilities of the systems, to make them more efficient.

“I think we’ll start to see other things come into play, such as singulators and other pieces of equipment that will help maintain carton orientation and make the sorting and induction systems much more efficient. As a result, other people with different types of products will start to deploy these types of systems, as well.” Lamar Leishman, director, logistics, SK Daifuku: “I think there’s a huge future in small component sortation that does automatic feeding. My personal feeling is that these small shoe sorters are going to be much more competitive than tilt-tray sorters, for instance, because of the simplicity of the operation vs. the need to manually feed the components onto the sorting system. “I also believe that conveyors and high-speed sorting systems are becoming commodities. A customer might put in one or two, and buy them as systems. After one or two, many times the customer will buy somebody’s conveyor and somebody else’s sorter and then put them together and install it.”

Boyce Bonham, manager, technology center, Hytrol: “People are looking for higher speeds. They’re also looking for quieter and more economical solutions.

“I think people are still going to be looking at higher speeds. It’s a question of how fast is the future going to bring — what’s the next thing that’s going to bring us to a new limit to be able to control the boxes.

“Something that we’re seeing is that people are trying to handle items that were at one time considered too small for sortation systems. So you’re looking to handle a wider variety of sizes than you have in the past. At one time, with some of the very small or large items, it was acceptable to not put them on the conveyor and just hand deliver them to the shipping doors. That’s not acceptable today; people are wanting to put those items on the conveyor system. So I think the conveyor will expected to handle a wider range of product mix.”

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