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Conveyors in Distribution: Ready for Change

Oct. 13, 2011
E-retail may be the prime mover behind conveyor flexibility, but in this challenging economy distribution centers in any industry should be ready to adapt.

As more shoppers take advantage of the flexibility and choices available through e-commerce, more traditional retailers large and small are building their e-commerce fulfillment capabilities. That is changing internal and external material handling infrastructures. Supply chains are losing mega distribution centers and gaining regional fulfillment centers to minimize fuel costs and accelerate delivery times. There are also more multi-function facilities combining manufacturing and distribution under one roof. Add to this mix a tremendous growth in return channels and it’s plain that “flexible” must be part of the job description on every material handler’s resume.

It must also be built into the conveyor system specifications developed to support these environments. Conveyor manufacturers are dedicating their R&D budgets to finding new ways to help customers keep up with consumers’ growing service demands. Those demands are resulting in more item-level handling, faster operations and less predictable order patterns.

No Wasted Space

“The whole inbound receiving process and the element of returns have driven a new set of conveyor system designs and material flow designs we haven’t focused on in the past,” says Mike Khodl, vice president of solution development for Dematic ( “How do I deal with all the UPS and FedEx shipments that come back from customers every day from a volume perspective? What time do I do them, when do I reallocate them to inventory, what’s the inspection process, how do I credit the customer and at what point, and how do I keep that secure in my receiving area? And sometimes things come back in different type boxes, so it becomes more of a parcel type receipt vs a normal distribution type receipt.”

That pretty well summarizes the considerations shippers must keep in mind when contemplating a new investment in conveyor systems. Those responsible for the purchase don’t have the luxury of space they once did. While considering the best technology to accommodate their split case picking operations, they must also think more in cubic feet than in square feet.

“We’re filling space all the way to the ceiling instead of just putting in a bunch of 10-foot-tall picking modules with 30 feet of air above them,” Khodl says. “The trend is to couple distribution with manufacturing. Instead of having a distribution center 10 miles away from the manufacturing plant and doing all the trucking and loading of those trailers, it’s a trend to clamp that distribution system right onto the manufacturing plant, which also drives a more compact system design. That means better use of the space and a more real time operating scenario.”

Chris Arnold, vice president of operations and solutions development for Intelligrated (, agrees. He adds, however, that much more needs to be accomplished in that diminishing space being set aside for distribution.

“What you see more in the designs are a multi-use or multi-purpose layout,” he says. “An example may be combining a shipping function and the sortation piece with another function within the facility which might include routing of cartons to quality assurance off that same sorter and using it twice—once to go to a quality assurance area and once to go down to a shipping department. Or perhaps using it a third time for zone routing to route cartons to the various pick locations to minimize carton touches by an associate—having to put it on or take it off a cart, and using the conveyor technology instead. It’s all about creating a multi-purpose, multi-function use out of that piece of technology.”

New Handling Needs

That kind of flexibility gets more important as business volatility increases. Retailers who are new to e-commerce are learning as they go along. Conveyor modularity enables them to pick up and move to another site once they realize what they want to be. But in the meantime, if the number of units per order increases or decreases, they can still add layers of technology without having to knock walls down. And if speeds need to increase, the new technologies being developed can accommodate that need while protecting packages from damage and workers from excess noise.

“There’s more technology built around softly touching that carton and at a very high rate, moving it over in another direction without losing the control of that carton,” Arnold says.

That’s a key consideration, considering that the combined trends of environmental sustainability and minimized packaging are making products more vulnerable to the forces of physics. Not having as solid an object to handle is driving conveyor manufacturers to design better transitions from one conveyor to another. With the rise of e-tailing, conveyors must now handle naked items as well as cartons or cases. The item may even be put into a sealed bag for shipment rather than into a box. That has driven the need for smaller roller centers and a trend away from roller conveyor and toward belt accumulation, according to Boyce Bonham, director of integrator services for Hytrol (

“We’ve done that with our 24 volt technology with belt over the rollers so you have belted accumulation zones,” he says. “You might need a pivot wheel sorter. We also have a shoe sorter that’s about half scale of a full size industry standard shoe sorter, with closer shoe centers and slat centers. It can sort bags and boxes, which can then slide down the chutes into a Gaylord container for a particular parcel company to pick up. Where space is a more critical issue people can also use narrow belt sorters. Many times you can get the divert centers closer together so you can get a more dense takeaway space.”

Intelligent Design

The level of conveyor flexibility discussed in this article can only be delivered if there’s been an equal amount of deliberation on the front end of a system design.

“We’re all good at designing a system for the norm, but exceptions that happen 5-10% of the time can cause 80% of your problems,” says Mitch Johnson, director of systems development for Hytrol. “As everybody tries to get the last few inches of cube in a truck while getting accurate reporting on their bills of lading from UPS, that causes a struggle between software and hardware. The software wants to know between one or two cartons what’s actually going on that truck, but if the hardware hasn’t been planned up front, it may be a challenge for the hardware to know exactly what’s going on that truck to that level of detail. So now you have to build scanning in where before you might not have cared about a one- or two-carton difference.”

Another variable that makes a big difference in conveyor design is the application’s labor situation. While many conveyor systems are designed to minimize labor, they must also help make existing labor more productive. Demographic shifts can have a big impact on conveyor design. That could mean designing for a more elderly workforce, or building in universal access features for associates who have cognitive or physical disabilities. Maybe you’ll need to design a workstation for wheelchair accessibility.

“We’ve built universal access into our product development designs for our workstations,” Dematic’s Khodl says. “It can result in a very efficient and effective workstation for non-disabled individuals as well. It benefits an operation from a simplicity perspective, from a training perspective, and for better accuracy and repeatability as well.”

Ergonomics also play a bigger role in conveyor design, especially as higher speeds require noise dampening. That’s leading to more belted surface conveyors, especially in goods-to-person operations where plastic totes are used. While workers are being exposed to less noise, employers are also making sure their movements are more efficient.

“Technologies are reducing walk time by clustering orders that are very similar so that picking associates are picking 3-4 orders at one time in the same footprint where they were picking one order before,” says Chris Arnold. “Same hardware, just using software differently.”

Today’s conveyors are invisible to most in the supply chain, but what they help their users accomplish is apparent at all levels in an enterprise. They help the material handlers using them scale to the volume and nature of their business—even if their company is a third-party logistics provider. For 3PLs, such adaptability is the first thing on their specification list. After all, their systems could be dedicated to pharmaceutical products for three years, only to be reconfigured for consumer retail for another three. These capabilities are becoming the new norm for all companies beset by supply change.

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