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Sorting through sortation history

Sorting Through Sortation History

In the first of a four-part blog series designed to help our readers understand the variety of sortation technologies available and how to select the appropriate one, I wanted to start with a very brief history lesson on the evolution of automated sortation.

Over the past 50 years, the material handling industry has developed thousands of solutions to automate the sortation process. Initially designed to prevent backbreaking labor, these technologies are now focused on saving time, money and errors throughout the supply chain.

1950s – 1960s
Prior to fully automated sortation systems, some operations used material handling equipment to assist with the manual act of actually performing the sort operation. One of my favorite examples was the “doughnut” concept (pictured below).

Aircraft Parts Shipping Distribution Center

In this concept, a sortation operator stood inside of a 15-foot diameter powered turntable and 17 outgoing gravity conveyor lanes. The operator manually pushed packages from the turntable to the appropriate outgoing conveyor lane, and then transmitted order status information.

Late 1960s – Early 1970s
In the late 1960s and early 1970s, sorters had advanced to semi-automated status, where operators could manually set automated devices to direct material to a specific lane.

Pop-up wheel sorters were also introduced during this time, providing fully automated systems, rate improvements and gentler product handling as compared to air operated pushers.

Mid 1970s


In June 1974, first UPC barcode was put into production on packs of Wrigley® chewing gum. With the UPC, the potential for fully automated scanning eliminated the need for manual labor to direct product and laid the foundation for fully automated sortation systems.

During this timeframe, a new approach to sortation systems was also taking shape. Two of the major innovations within the industry were the “gull wing sorter” and the “tipping tray sorter.” Both of these ran in a continuous, constant speed loop as product was inducted and sorted to various locations. Called tilt-tray sorters today, these sorters became popular in airports, postal and parcel hubs, and were also often applied for sorting bundles of newspaper, apparel and footwear.

In 1982, Alvey® (now an Intelligrated brand) introduced the first sliding shoe sorter. The ZIP-SORTER featured sliding pushers that diverted product to aftersort lanes, and the positive “push off” diverting process allowed for drastic increases in sortation rates.


In the 1990s, strip belt sorters were introduced to the market and provided a sortation solution similar to the pop-up wheel, but with the benefit of a continuous conveying surface across the entire length of the sorter. This improved rates and reliability over longer sorters.

Motor driven roller (MDR) technology was introduced in the late 1990s, but gained popularity in the 2000s as the technology was embraced by the postal industry. MDR (a motor for every zone of conveyor) with run-on-demand logic, was a good low maintenance option offering a small system footprint with less energy consumption and noise than other technologies.

Today’s Available Technologies
Now that we reviewed the evolution of automated sortation over the past 50 years, what technologies are available for you to choose from now?

Pusher: Padded paddles push items off belt conveyor; Ideal for applications that require low capital investment, sturdy products and low throughput rates.

Pop-Up Wheel Sorter: Embedded wheels lift and transfer items to an aftersort conveyor; Ideal for applications that require low capital investment and medium sortation rates.

MDR Divert: Embedded pop-up wheels in MDR conveyor; Ideal for applications requiring zero-contact accumulation, run-on-demand zone controls.

Sliding Shoe Sorter: “Shoes” positively divert items to an aftersort conveyor; Ideal for shipping applications that require high accuracy and throughput rates for wide range of items.

Belt Slat Sorter: Belts positively divert items to an aftersort conveyor; Ideal for applications with difficult-to-handle items that require predictable diverts.

Tilt-Tray Sorter: Trays on a continuous loop “tilt” items into chute destinations; Ideal for applications that require a high number of sort locations for maximum throughput.

Cross-Belt Sorter: Motorized belts on a continuous loop transfer items to chute destinations; Ideal for applications that require a high number of sort locations and divert reliability.

How to choose your technology today for tomorrow
The myriad of sortation technologies available today can mean great confusion when sorting through all the options. Download Intelligrated’s new white paper "Sorting Out Your Sortation Options” for help with evaluating and selecting the right sortation solution for your facility.