For most people, sortation systems are strongly associated with sorting outbound orders for shipping. But they can also be a smart choice for other purposes, according to Bob Babel, vice president and executive consultant for engineering consulting firm and systems integrator Forté.
Take receiving, for example. Companies that are involved in omnichannel fulfillment and just-in-time replenishment often receive cartons and pallets with mixed stock-keeping units (SKUs). These typically are manually broken down and the contents sorted by SKU for putaway. With automation, however, workers can place the items on a conveyor in whatever order they come off the pallet or out of the carton, and the sortation system will sort them by SKU and deliver them for putaway. The items can then be picked off the conveyor and into a cart, or possibly right into the pick face or a "ready reserve" area, Babel said in an interview. Rebuilt pallets with single or multiple SKUs could go into racks for longer-term storage.
This application could make sense for DCs that receive a variety of items from many suppliers, such as automotive aftermarket parts and office supplies. "Receiving systems can be a bit difficult to justify on labor alone, because you are still touching the product a certain number of times, depending on the industry," Babel said. "But generally, you get a big improvement on the receiving dock, and you're getting items into the pick face faster so they're available for sale sooner."
Other "soft" benefits of using sortation systems in receiving include ergonomic advantages when breaking down pallets and cartons, and the ability to collect packaging trash and dunnage at a centralized location near receiving rather than at the pick face, Babel said.