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Conveyors in Warehouse Automation and Sortation: What Role do they Play?

Posted: 30 July 2021

Someone viewing a modern warehouse or fulfillment centre will inevitably have their eye drawn to the tangle of conveyors snaking around the building. To the designers of the site, it’s anything but a tangle – it’s the result of deep calculations and a quest for efficiency that makes these places tick, maintains fast flow of products and keeps costs low.

Here, we’re going to have a look at warhouse automation and sortation, and show how a well designed system can save you money and satisfy customers with their ever-growing levels of expectation.

What is warehouse automation?

If there’s a cover-all definition of automation, it’s moving predictable or repetitive tasks from humans to machines. In the world of warehousing and fulfillment, we accept that automation helps get products from A to B, but we still might need humans to perform many of the tasks. 

A typical modern fulfillment centre has quite a lot of human activity in the loading bays and packaging areas. That’s especially true where the products being processed are all in different shapes sizes, such as an eCommerce centre, as variety is difficult to automate but comes naturally to humans. On the other hand, warehouses that process items that are all essentially the same tend to have maximum automation.

That’s not to say the gap isn’t closing, however: systems are getting much smarter at dealing with irregularity. Even the parts that currently have no viable alternative to automation – delivery drivers, for example – will in all likelihood become more automated over the next decade. Self-driving vehicles and drones look like the prime contenders, but who knows what other technologies will get products to people’s doorsteps?

The degree of automation is also determined by the nature of the products being processed. Truly one-off items or extremely fragile products will probably always need a greater degree of human handling. Automation only really pays for itself at scale, and speed of processing can come at the cost of a bit of a bumpy ride, hence the amount of protective packaging required.

Making it work

At the heart of any warehouse automation system, there has to be a robust Warehouse Management System (WMS) and/or Warehouse Control System (WCS). Once individual products, pallets, containers or vehicles are tagged, their locations can be read via barcodes, RFID, GPS or other digital systems, or simply by manual identification. That means their precise whereabouts can be detected at any moment and the system can be programmed to send them where they are required automatically.

WMS and WCS are similar in many respects, with certain areas of overlap. However, as the name suggests, the warehouse management system is more of an overarching means of visibility, tracking consignments and individual products before, during and after their time in the warehouse. It means that the warehouse managers know where anything is at a given time, and where it’s scheduled to be.

However, while WMS tends to look at the bigger picture, the WCS is more of a micro-management tool. It tracks individual items or groups of items more precisely as they travel around the warehouse on their automated flow systems. It requires multiple sensors around the system to keep track of the packages. This level of precision is absolutely necessary once the items head towards sortation, as split-second timing is required to divert each package towards its destination in the warehouse.

Complex WCS tends not to be used in lower-volume warehouse operations, as WMS can often provide a usable degree of precision for package location. When you’ve got thousands of items passing through every hour, though, the bigger picture just isn’t enough, and WCS takes over.

Joining the dots: the conveyor system

Whatever system is being used to automate a warehousing operation, there’s one essential component without which no high-volume warehouse can function: the conveyors. While the layperson might have preconceived ideas about what conveyors look like – flat belts rolling along in straight lines – the modern conveyor is a magnificent feat of speed and precision operating in three-dimensional space.

For moving products quickly from one part of the warehouse to the other, the commonest and simplest form is the belt conveyor, onto which products are loaded and put into the system. With a fully functioning WCS, individual packages can be picked from high density shelving spaces high up on mezzanine floors using reachers and grabbers, and placed on a conveyor to start its journey to the sorting area. While this operation can of course be carried out by fork lift truck or manually, the important thing is that the conveyor system moves things continuously, quickly and automatically. A warehouse worker can be onto their next package while the last one goes on its way.

As soon as options are introduced, i.e. for different packages to take different routes, the conveyor switches to a roller system. Through the use of scanners tracking each item, diverters can pop up between the rollers, or the wheels themselves can reorient themselves to send the packages off, either at a smooth, flowing angle or at 90 degrees, depending on the needs and layout of the warehouse. This is perfect for eCommerce sortation, where packages for certain postcodes or addresses can be diverted to a single sorting and packaging bench to be quickly processed and sent to delivery vehicles.

Conveyors can of course be sloped, but for scaling vertical climbs or drops, the spiral conveyor is an efficient use of space for high-volume flow of items. For lower flows, a simple elevator system is often all that’s needed. It has a smaller footprint, but since it can only carry one item or one batch at a time, it only suits throughputs where a continuous flow isn’t required or possible.

CSL’s conveyor systems are built with modularity in mind. Because successful warehousing and eCommerce operations grow, it’s a relatively straightforward job to add new sections to it. For example, you can introduce new diverters to send packages to new wings of the warehouse without having to completely re-think the storage area; and adding new sorting and packaging benches is simplicity itself.

Perfect harmony

As you’ve seen, a functioning automated warehouse with a WMS and a WCS constantly locating and diverting items to where they’re needed is a hugely efficient and elegant solution to warehousing for eCommerce. The conveyors play an integral part in making the system work many times faster than any team of humans could hope to achieve.

You’ll know your business best, particularly what degree of human input is required for your products and flow. But as you grow and the flow of products needs to be improved to meet customers’ expectations, it’s time to get in touch to talk about putting the first elements of your scalable conveyor system in place.

We’re here to help you get on a roll.