When their bubble burst, the dot-coms took a lot of industries down with them. Along with the manufacturers of pool tables, beanbag furniture and cappuccino machines were victims of another sort: manufacturers of the sortation systems used in picking the individual items for all those Internet orders.
Manufacturers of sortation equipment—shoe sorters, tilt-tray and cross-belt sorters, pop-up-wheel and pusher type sorters—had all watched sales swell during the early years of the dot-com boom. High-speed sortation equipment seemed an ideal fit for e-tailing, which tends to be heavy on single-pick orders. And in those heady early days when the dot-coms didn't know what their limits would be, sortation systems offered the design flexibility to ship 50,000 items a day or a million units a day.
Everybody knows how that story ended. And though sortation equipment remains hugely popular in Europe, domestic sales have dropped. "Like almost all material handling equipment makers, we've seen a decline in market size since the fall of the dot-coms and the downturn of the overall economy," says Steve McElweenie, executive vice president of sales and marketing for the Crisplant division of FKI Logistex, which manufactures sorting systems.
But surprisingly, the outlook for sortation equipment sales remains relatively bright. Even with the dot-com meltdown and the feeble economy, demand for high-speed sorters has held its own, bolstered by DC managers who hope that sortation systems' fabled ability to increase productivity, reduce costs and improve customer satisfaction will help them rev up their operations.
Though high-speed sorters aren't for everyone, their appeal to a high-volume operation is obvious. The equipment, which is used most commonly to sort individual items or cases by order in a pick-to-belt operation, offers flexibility, the ability to handle high volumes, and most of all, speed. Rates vary somewhat depending on the type of sorter. According to Christopher Paulsen, CEO of Pittston, Pa.-based material handling specialist WEPCO, shoe sorters can typically handle up to 9,000 items per hour, while cross-belt sorters process up to 11,000 items per hour.
All these things make sort ation equipment attractive to companies selling everything from books to foot wear to CDs to pharmaceuticals. But it's probably made its biggest inroads in the apparel industry: At TJ Maxx's one-million-square-foot distribution center in Pennsylvania, for example, two tilt-tray sorters run over 3,500 feet apiece and sort clothing items for delivery to over 600 stores at mind-boggling rates.
Fashion apparel manufacturer Tommy Hilfiger uses a unique sortation system built into the conveyor line at its wholesale consolidation center in New Jersey, which has cut the time it takes to turn delivery trucks by 40 percent or more. Tommy Hilfiger's DCs pick and pack customer orders (sometimes in advance of the customers' requested shipping dates), then transfer them to the company's consolidation center, where they accumulate to become full truckload quantities. On the day trucks are scheduled to pick up a consolidated truckload shipment, the pallets are placed in a multi-level pallet flow rack pick module. When the truck arrives, cartons are put on to a conveyor, inducted into the sortation system and sorted by bill of lading to the appropriate door. The sorter allows multiple trucks to be loaded simultaneously, typically in less than 90 minutes per truck.
Going for volume
Many times, the decision to invest in sortation equipment signals that a company's order volume has finally hit critical mass. At children's apparel manufacturer VF Playwear, for example, volume can reach over 100,000 units a day. "At over 100,000 units a day … when they looked at pick-tolight tolight or other options, the sheer labor it would take to process that unit volume was overpowering," says McElweenie. "Sortation provided a pretty good return on investment for them."
Scholastic Inc., the world's largest publisher and distributor of children's books, processes an avera ge of 50,000 to 60,000 orders a day at its distribution center in Jefferson City, Mo., but during a recent peak period, it actually moved more than 112,000 orders. The DC—which occupies just under one million square feet—couldn't move such high volumes without the sortation system now in place.
In Scholastic's highly automated operation, which features approximately 5.5 miles of conveyor line, high-speed merging and sortation take place at key points in the orderflow process. Wide-merge tables consisting of live roller and power-faced plow equipment from Hytrol merge up to 100 cartons a minute before they move to the quality control and automated weight check lines.
Another high-throughput merge system prepares the cartons for transport to taping lanes for sealing. From the taping area, the completed orders move toward the shipping area for the final high-speed merge and sortation.
Cartons enter this area on live rollers and connect with a three-lane servo-belt gapping system. Each lane has three segments. Photo eyes control the speed of the belts in each segment, creating gaps between the cartons. This creates a "zipper" effect as the cartons merge onto a tube-and-chain combiner.
The combiner aligns the cartons and nudges them onto a belt conveyor that leads to the Hytrol ProSort, an advanced sortation system that can handle more than 150 cartons a minute. Product is transported on flight tubes, where at predetermined locations, divert shoes move diagonally across the conveyor to push the product onto a take away line.
Start spreading the news
As sortation systems evolve,distribution centers are finding new uses for them. McElweenie notes, for example, that many customers are adapting their systems to handle a wider variety of products. Others are finding ways to perform multiple sorts on their sorters, running not only outbound order processing but also handling returned items on a second shift in an effort to achieve a higher return on their investment.
These applications haven't escaped the vendors' notice. While they wait for the economy to perk up, they're working hard behind the scenes to get the word out about sortation. Educating—or re-educating—the industry may sound like an ambitious endeavor. But it beats sitting around waiting for a dot-comeback … or shopping for a good deal on a used cappuccino maker.