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Tag: conveyor

Conveyor: Moving automated DCs into the future

Think of conveyor as the streets and canals of the distribution center. Automated conveyor solutions are the essential infrastruture required to keep orders flowing to the right place at the right time. From pallet transport conveyor to case, tote and polybag varieties, each component - even down to conveyor parts and accessories - plays a critical role to meet operational requirements. 

And just as city streets must accommodate motorcycles, cars, trucks, pedestrians and bicycles, every industry must accommodate more variety thanks to SKU proliferation. Big box retailers are expected to sell every brand of every product, from toothpaste to refrigerators. Every food and beverage distributor must offer year-round variety, seasonal specialites and health-conscious options. But besides product, packaging makes a difference, too. With the advent of dimensional weight pricing, most conveyor and transmission solutions must handle packaging types like polybags and bubble mailers that represent a significant departure from the rigid corrugate cases for which they were originally designed. 

This places a premium on flexible conveyor solutions capable of fueling a facility's high-speed sorting procedure reliably and efficienctly. This means picking the right technology - conveyor belts and parts - matched to the requirements of the application

And just like avoiding road closures and construction detours keeps traffic flowing, minimizing unplanned downtime and ensuring system availability is critical. This means a preventive maintenance program to head off issues before they happen and quick-response, 24X7 support in the event of an outage. Working with an OEM lifecycle management group and a computerized maintenance management system provides data-driven decisions and the necessary level of detail - even covering how to aggregate conveyor parts. 

To learn more about advanced conveyor applications, read the Intelligrated blog, Understanding accumulation technology choices leads to better solutions for operations or contact a representative

Webinar explores polybags for reducing shipping costs

The increase in e-commerce home deliveries, combined with the advent of dimensional (or DIM) pricing in 2015 on some carrier ground deliveries, has translated to increased shipping costs associated with order fulfillment. As e-commerce continues to fuel the growth in small item home deliveries, last-mile carriers were quick to adopt this volumetric pricing strategy. To keep shipping costs low and ensure that web shoppers kept clicking the Submit Order button, retailers have since began the transition from traditional, corrugated cartons (boxes) to alternative shipping containers such as bubble mailers and polybags. In our most recent On The Move Webinar, “Goodbye cartons, hello polybags,” I explored the impacts this packaging shift has had on fulfillment strategies.

I kicked off the Webinar with a brief explanation of DIM pricing, including specific examples of how larger, yet lighter items are more expensive to ship than heavier, smaller products. I then shared two key statistics that demonstrated the impacts of this pricing change:

  • 33 percent of all ground shipments are affected by DIM pricing
  • Shipping costs increased 42 percent in 2015 compared to 2014

The first live Webinar poll question confirmed that 50 percent of attendees have already made changes to their organization to address the DIM pricing change. The second question revealed that 61 percent of attendees have already incorporated polybags into their packaging mix, with cartons still the most common packaging option at 93 percent. Clearly, there will always be a place for traditional packaging, but the pliable nature of polybags makes them ideal for irregular-shaped items or softer apparel-type products. But the rule of thumb with packaging is: the more pliable the packaging, the lower the DIM weight and shipping costs. Conversely, the more pliable the packaging, the more challenges it presents to the automated material handling system.

The remainder of the Webinar discussed the many ways retailers can lower shipping weights. Note that the first four items on this list precede addressing actual conveyance/sortation strategies:

  1. Re-negotiate with carriers
  2. Utilize on-demand packaging solutions via machines that create cartons based on order profile
  3. Install cartonization software that tells packers the optimal size package to use
  4. Deploy rate shopping software that selects the optimal carrier based on size, weight, destination and negotiated rates
  5. Perform pre-sortation at the fulfillment center to skip shipping zones and dramatically cut costs
  6. Reduce packaging sizes either with new systems designed to accommodate polybag flow from pack-out operations to shipping or by investigating opportunities to handle polybags with existing equipment

The two primary methods for incorporating polybags into fulfillment centers are singulated and bulk flow systems. I discussed the pros and cons of each method and explained that the bulk flow system eventually requires automated or manual singulation prior to final sortation in the fulfillment center.

I then explained some of the challenges associated with conveying polybags through the DC, including: the potential for extra catch points; the difficulty conveyor cameras have detecting the leading and trailing edges of an item; and the challenge of barcode identification due to package irregularities.

Finally, I addressed the variety of conveyor and sortation equipment types and their ability to handle these pliable polybags. There are a multitude of factors to consider and as many equipment options to evaluate, from rollers and belt zones to diverters and sweep sorters. With so many considerations, it’s vitally important for retailers to consult with an experienced material handling solution provider. To learn how you can integrate polybags into your DC operations, please visit our archives to view this Webinar in its entirety or speak to an Intelligrated material handling expert.

Next On The Move webinar to discuss transition from cartons to polybags

The explosive growth in e-commerce and the need to reduce shipping costs have changed the packaging methods used to send goods from manufacturers to consumers. From polybags to thin shipping envelopes and bubble packs, today's e-commerce operations have a myriad of packaging options at their disposal. As a result, direct-to-consumer orders are more frequently being shipped in polybags than ever before. In our next On The Move webinar, Tim Kraus, product management manager, will discuss the far-reaching implications of this shift throughout the materials handling industry.

In particular, Kraus will explain how this transition from rigid cartons to polybags is quickly redefining material handling systems, processes and technologies. While these new packaging options offer reduced overall package size and dimensional weight, they present new challenges for material handling systems - especially those originally designed for more rigid packaging types. 

"Goodbye cartons, hello polybags" is the fifth webinar in the On The Move series and will take place on Thursday, July 21 at 2 p.m. EDT. As an expert on the application of conveyor and sortation solutions for the distribution, manufacturing and parcel delivery markets, Kraus will explore the drivers behind the shift from rigid cartons to polybags, explain what exactly is changing and provide strategies to help you make the transition. Attendees can expect Kraus to expound on the following key points: 

  • How the desire to reduce shipping costs is leading to further adoption of polybags
  • Why the pliable nature of polybags creates challenges for traditional material handling systems
  • How singulated systems compare to bulk handling in terms of total fulfillment costs
  • How appropriate system design, material handling equipment and devices can solve these challenges

Kraus will also discuss some of the common challenges of moving polybags through conveyor and sortation systems, including: product damage, shingling, jams, snags, irregular item and label orientation, and side-by-side products. He'll explore the considerations of transitioning existing technologies and material handling equipment to polybags, including: 

  • Can it effectively handle the product?
  • Can it locate the true position of the item?
  • Can it identify the package contents?

By answering these questions, Kraus will ultimately help attendees evaluate whether to optimize their current system or invest in new conveyor and sortation technologies. Register now to join Tim Kraus on Thursday, July 21 at 2 p.m. EDT for our next On The Move webinar.

Understanding accumulation technology choices leads to better solutions for operations

Conveyor is conveyor. That might be the thought while touring a sophisticated distribution operation with miles of roller conveyor, but various technologies have many subtle differences in order to transport items with built-in accumulation functionality. Conveyor features and functionality can vary greatly by manufacturer and application, but in general, accumulation conveyors can be broken into three high-level categories – each with its own balance of throughput, control and investment level. Making the right selection requires careful consideration and understanding of the technologies and expected material flow through a system.  Conveyor is not always conveyor.

Medium-pressure accumulation

Medium-pressure accumulation conveyors typically utilize a flat drive belt to apply adjustable pressure to conveyor rollers without logical control of the accumulation function. As product starts to accumulate because of a stop in downstream conveyor, the drive continues to run and rollers underneath continue to turn, resulting in back pressure on accumulated products. Medium-pressure accumulation conveyors are typically most appropriate when handling same- or similar-size products that closely match the width of the conveyor. Product should also be capable of withstanding slight back pressure.

This constant pressure is equivalent to driving a car in traffic while maintaining slight pressure on the gas pedal - the car still powers forward after contacting the bumper ahead.

Medium-pressure accumulation conveyors often operate in facilities that rarely require accumulation, as too much back pressure can result in side-by-sides, item damage and jams.

Zero-pressure accumulation

Zero-pressure accumulation conveyors consist of rollers divided into zones that drop in sequence as products accumulate. The system uses a flat, narrow belt or padded chain as the drive mechanism, raised or lowered by pneumatic actuators to apply drive pressure to rollers and move product. As product runs downstream, pneumatic actuators release air to lower the drive mechanism and remove pressure on rollers, allowing the item to coast to a stop. Zero-pressure accumulation conveyors often operate in distribution and fulfillment facilities where the product mix consists of a wide range of sizes and weights.

Zero-pressure accumulation equates to releasing the gas pedal before colliding with stopped cars in front. As the car coasts to a stop, it contacts the one in front.

The ideal zero-pressure accumulation conveyors remove drive pressure early enough to prevent side-by-sides, jams or damage, but late enough to remove all air gaps between items. This maximizes the number of items along a given length of conveyor for optimum accumulation density.

Zero contact accumulation

Zero contact accumulation conveyors provide the best carton control and lowest risk of product damage by instantly stopping accumulation zones to prevent items from contacting each other. One method to power this type of accumulation is one or two motor-driven rollers (MDR) connected via o-bands to other non-powered rollers to control each accumulation zone. MDR conveyors use “run-on-demand” technology that provides significant energy savings, only operating when necessary to move product to the next zone. Other benefits include low operating noise and an inherently safer operation since the motor only needs to be large enough to power a short zone, rather than an entire conveyor.

Zero contact accumulation is most similar to how people normally drive. Cars only move forward when space in front of them is open and come to a stop before contacting the car in front.

The ideal zero-pressure accumulation conveyors remove drive pressure early enough to prevent side-by-sides, jams or damage, but late enough to remove all air gaps between items. This maximizes the number of items along a given length of conveyor for optimum accumulation density.

One example of an application that may be best suited for zero contact accumulation is an operation with bagged packaging. The logical operation of zero contact accumulation prevents items from contacting one another and overlapping, reducing the risk of problems and the need for manual intervention.

For more information on understanding the best accumulation conveyor for your operation, along with a comparison of each based on key criteria including throughput, back pressure, product damage and product-handling flexibility, read the Intelligrated white paper Selecting the right accumulation conveyor.

How dimensional weight pricing changes will affect your e-commerce order fulfillment

The news

FedEx Ground and UPS recently announced dimensional weight-based pricing changes for shipments measuring less than 3 cubic feet beginning in 2015. Dimensional weight is the theoretical weight of a package calculated at a density chosen by the parcel carrier. This method allows the parcel carrier to better equate the volume of space consumed on a delivery truck to the price it charges for that shipment.  Prior to this change, items smaller than 3 cubic feet were priced based on actual weight and larger items based on actual size.

Figure 1 - Dimensional weight calculation

So what does this mean for e-commerce?

Currently, e-commerce consumers are not penalized with extra shipping costs for well-packaged small, lightweight or non-dense items smaller than 3 cubic feet such as apparel, electronics and cosmetics. Imagine ordering a small and fragile electronic device online.  If that product ships to you packaged inefficiently in a 17” x 17” x 17” carton today, the shipping charge should be the same as if it were to ship in a small bag. This will not be true in 2015 because new, dimensional weight shipping calculations mean that the cost will be lower for an efficiently-packaged small bag.

Under new pricing rules, the cost to ship a 5-pound package with a volume of less than 3 cubic feet can increase by 42 percent for a delivery less than 250 miles. Densely packed shipments won’t see a change and will continue to be priced based on their actual weight if it exceeds nominal density threshold. A Wall Street Journal report cited ShipMatrix’s data analysis of the industry, which found that 32 percent of all ground packages will be affected by this change, a majority of which weigh less than 5 pounds.

The transportation pricing policy change will significantly affect the efficiency of e-commerce fulfillment operations. Standard carton sizes just below 3 cubic feet were most economical to ship and moved efficiently through material handling systems. These systems have been optimized for medium to large size cartons with flat bottoms and square corners. Now DC operators will likely see a decrease in overall package dimensions to accommodate new dimensional weight pricing and an increased range of smaller package sizes. 

Figure 2 - FedEx Ground and UPS Ground pricing

Figure 2 - FedEx Ground and UPS Ground pricing

What is the impact on material handling system design and equipment?

A UPS e-commerce study revealed that more than half of online shoppers have abandoned a cart due to estimated delivery date and 61 percent cited shipping costs as the top reason for cart abandonment. In order to keep shipping costs down and avoid cart abandonment, e-commerce operations will turn to more economical packaging. Material handling systems have seen a dramatic increase in automated polybag handling in recent years, and as the e-commerce industry works to meet customer’s service expectations with cost-effective shipping options, that trend will only accelerate.

Furthermore, as e-commerce shipments grow, so do return volumes. Industry experts say that consumers return 25-50 percent of all goods purchased online. As these pricing changes take effect, returned goods are sure to follow the same trend as outbound orders, with increased use of polybags.

When preparing for increased small items and polybags, operations must consider unique package handling challenges and expected material handling system applications. See below:

When a polybag is not a polybag:

  • Thin poly shipping envelopes - lack structural integrity
  • Bubble packs - provide improved structural integrity but make the item less dense and more costly to ship
  • Consumer packaged bundled goods - bundle tightness can significantly affect conveyability

Polybags present special conveying and sorting challenges

  • Non-flat sides - complicate skewing and alignment
  • Non-flat fronts and backs - make accumulation difficult
  • Round surfaces - create difficulty keeping labels on top
  • Cylindrical shapes - make it difficult to maintain consistent position on a moving surface
  • Small items in big bags - create more catch points
  • Light-weight items - risk taking flight due to high-speed conveyance or large cooling fans

Material handling system operations with polybags:

  • Bulk conveyance - common in the parcel industry
  • Automated singulation - requires significant capital investment and occupies significant floor space
  • Manual singulation - more flexible practice can scale to match business volume
  • Singulated flow with accumulation capability -difficult due to packaging surface challenges mentioned above
  • Gapping and tracking for sortation - traditional sensors struggle to detect the true beginning and end points of polybags
  • Frictional diverting (wheel or roller sorters) - accuracy varies widely by technology and product mix
  • Positive sortation (sliding shoe sorter) - the right slat and pusher shape can reliably handle polybags
  • Dedicated tray sorting (tilt tray or cross belt) - item is captured and easier to track through the sortation process 

Where do we go from here?

Contact your solutions provider to discuss the effects of polybags on material handling systems and develop a plan to ensure high-throughput, uninterrupted e-commerce fulfillment.

For more information, read the Intelligrated white paper, Sorting out your sortation options, or view videos of tilt-tray and cross-belt sorters, conveyor solutions and sliding shoe sorters in action.

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