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The new space race: How conveyor solutions keep pace with urbanization

The transformative effect of e-commerce on order fulfillment operations is well known. Rising consumer expectations for convenience and shipping speed have left many operations struggling to keep up. The increased number of direct-to-consumer fulfillment paths threatens to inflate shipping costs and the number of delayed shipments, spurring dissatisfied customers to take their business elsewhere.

But these are not the only forces driving change. Rapid urbanization fueled by flight from suburban areas and small towns to larger urban centers shows no sign of slowing down - especially among millennials with technology preferences that favor e-commerce. Already crowded cities are getting bigger and denser by the month.

This mass migration to urban areas means e-commerce supply chain operations must follow suit, and increased competition for limited space by residential and commercial interests drives up land costs. This, coupled with SKU proliferation and expanding inventory requirements, all conspire to give operations no choice but to optimize the limited space they do have. 

Flexibility is key

Urbanization pressures order fulfillment operations to embrace flexibility. That is, the flexibility to optimize existing layouts and handle a wide array of package shapes and sizes, all coming together in a well-oiled e-commerce order fulfillment system to keep orders flowing to the right places at the right time.

A motor driven roller (MDR) conveyor right angle transfer enables such a material handling solution, offering the best payback in facilities with a high concentration of merge and divert operations working in a limited footprint. Using a compact, efficient design, these transfers facilitate a 90-degree change in direction for cases and totes, as well as some polybags.

Polybag handling can present added complexity to systems because of their inherent physical characteristics. Detecting the leading and trailing edge of the bag can be difficult due to inconsistent shapes, and bag corners add additional catch points that can lead to throughput-killing jams. Understanding what your system can handle, in terms of packaging types and the items within, is critical to success. An experienced partner or internal engineering resource can provide the expertise to ensure that equipment can reliably handle polybag-packed e-commerce orders.

Keep up with growth without sacrificing efficiency

As products and packaging types used for home deliveries continue to evolve, vital fulfillment infrastructure like sortation and conveyor systems must adapt. The right MDR transfers can adjust roller and band spacing to accommodate wide varieties of packaging types and sizes. For polybags, this can help minimize catchpoints and risk of jams without the need for margin-crushing modifications.

And as demand grows, best-fit fulfillment workflows change. Goods-to-operator fulfillment maximizes labor productivity and makes the most efficient use of available space to serve growing order volumes. In this workflow, MDR transfer works in tandem with an AS/RS shuttle system to keep inventory flowing smoothly and efficiently. 

When not in use, the transfer's run-on-demand technology minimizes wasted energy, resulting in longer equipment life and a fraction of total energy use. For operations already strained by higher land costs, these reductions offer welcome cost savings to minimize overhead and protect margins.

Designed to avoid downtime

With such tight delivery schedules, demanding service level agreements and competition only a click away, unplanned downtime is lethal. But in the event an outage does occur, a swift resolution can mean the difference between repeat business and losing customers. MDR transfers are maintenance-friendly by design and use fewer unique replacement parts, which means operations spend less time on maintenance and less money on replacement parts. Simpler designs with fewer parts also reduce risk of an outage and hasten a resolution in the event that an outage does occur.

For more information on how MDR transfers, conveyors and other sortation solutions can work as part of your e-commerce order fulfillment strategy, contact a Honeywell Intelligrated representative or read the Conquer high-volume e-commerce with goods-to-operator order fulfillment white paper. 

Which vertical conveyor is best for your operations?

To keep pace with consumer expectations and enable direct-to-consumer delivery, retailers and manufacturers are rapidly evolving their distribution center strategies. Many are migrating their fulfillment operations toward mega-cities and high-population centers to enable on-time delivery, making the efficiency of these DCs more important than ever. But things are also evolving inside the four walls to maximize the available space and optimize product and employee workflows. This "warehousing compression" strategy requires better utilization of vertical spaces and new automation equipment to support this upward trend in high-density facilities. 

Some innovative approaches to vertical expansion include facility upgrades to include mezzanines, multiple floors and, most importantly, vertical conveyors to facilitate the movement of product throughout these various levels. Whether it's footprint, flexibility, throughput or ergonomic consideration, each facility has different requirements for its vertical conveyors. 

In Intelligrated's most recent On The Move webinar titled, "Vertical solutions: elevating your products to the next level," I discussed the available vertical conveyor options to meet these challenges. While the concept of vertical conveyance is relatively simple - moving product in a carton or tote to a different level in the warehouse - the variety of options to accomplish this can address varying degrees of process complexity. To select the best option for your operations, it's important to understand the pros and cons of each option. 

As I presented in the webinar, vertical conveyors fall into four basic categories:

Continuous flow - Comprised of either incline or spiral options, continuous flow conveyors feature belt or motor-driven rollers and offer simple control systems. While incline conveyors provide high throughput rates, they are limited to single entry and exit points, and take up a lot of floor space. Similarly, spiral conveyors also provide high throughput rates and a relatively large footprint, but offer multiple entry and exit points.

Suspended shelf - As the name implies, suspended shelf conveyors employ a vertical shelf design to achieve multiple product elevations. Continuous suspended shelf options utilize a simple control system, provide single entry and exit points, offer medium throughput rates and still require medium to large space allotments. 

Indexing suspended shelf - These servo-control systems have similar characteristics to suspended shelf conveyors while adding the benefits of multiple entry and exit points, and vertical merging and sorting. 

Reciprocating conveyor - Vertical reciprocating conveyors (VRC) offer maximum flexibility in conveyor / shelving configurations and take up very little floor space. Also driven by a servo-control system, VRCs integrate with single-, double- or triple-zone conveyors; offer over- or under-conveyor configurations; and can be utilized in speciality zones such as transfers or turntables to deliver product to the most ergonomic position for workers. Since the shelf returns to the start position for product induction, VRCs operate at lower throughput rates. Regardless, the flexibility and small footprint of VRCs are making it an increasingly popular option. 

Ultimately, selecting a vertical conveyor depends on your specific business objectives. To learn more about the possibilities of vertical conveyance and better understand which option is right for you, please view this webinar on our website. 

Motor driven roller conveyor: The e-commerce supply chain solution

Online shoppers are hungry for selection and speed. They want a strip mall worth of products at their fingertips, ready for delivery by their next meal. In fact, a recent survey shows that 87 percent of online shoppers identified shipping speed as a crucial factor in whether they were going to shop with a brand again, and 47 percent of those surveyed said they would pay more money to get same-day delivery. 

The high volumes of smaller, individual orders flooding out of warehouses as a result of these e-commerce trends has spurred changes throughout distribution networks that have real consequences for material handling systems. For example, as carriers and shippers look to make the most efficient use of available delivery capacity, automated equipment must handle a wide range of packaging types - such as polybags.

How do I prepare for polybags?

To cut costs that come with dimensional weight pricing, more companies are using polybags or envelopes to ship individual e-commerce orders. For many omnichannel distribution centers, this means handling a variety of packaging types - polybags, corrugated boxes, totes - in one operating space. 

Polybags, with their tendency to bunch up on themselves, bring a unique set of handling challenges. They need to move along a conveyor system with minimal contact and catchpoints to avoid jams and keep product moving. Motor driven roller (MDR) conveyor is the conveyor system of choice.

What are the advantages of MDR?

With the growing pressure to quickly ship items ranging in size from pill bottles to bed frames, the material handling industry is facing new challenges. To keep up with e-commerce order fulfillment, ask yourself: Are my conveyors ready for e-commerce? If you're using conventional conveyor systems designed to handle only cases or totes, the answer is probably no.

No matter the order size or packaging type, effective e-commerce order fulfillment requires moving high volumes of items through distribution processes quickly and efficiently - without damage. Zero-contact MDR technology enables individually-powered zones to instantly stop, maximizing product control, eliminating back pressure and reducing the risk of product damage. 

This technology maximizes the amount of items on the conveyor, allowing operations to make the most of available space and optimize accumulation density. For e-commerce operations challenged to house an ever-expanding inventory, efficient use of space is critical, ultimately resulting in more orders fulfilled, greater customer satisfaction and a growing business. 

MDR systems also use fewer conveyor parts, helping lower maintenance requirements and reducing the risk of downtime. Its modular design can scale as operational demand dictates and easily adapt to existing layouts and footprints for easy installation, along with providing the flexibility to change configurations as business needs (and online shopping patterns) shift. 

But that's only part of the MDR story

The versatility of MDR conveyor means it is not just limited to e-commerce order fulfillment and polybag handling. An array of advanced features such as a full width belt, an array eye and more can take operations to the next level - to say nothing of MDR conveyor's essential role as part of sophisticated automated material handling solutions. Keep an eye out for these aspects and more in part two and three of Intelligrated's MDR conveyor blog series. 

In the meantime, read the Intelligrated white paper, Selecting the right accumulation conveyor, for more information on making the right conveyor choice. 

Using vertical conveyor solutions to maximize your DC footprint

Modern DC operators face a common dilemma: the space they need to meet omnichannel demands is running out. As direct-to-consumer order fulfillment requirements continue to push the limits of service level expectations, the physical constraints of their warehouses have them feeling boxed in. Typical options to solve this problem - such as expansion, new facility construction or outsourcing - are often impractical and require significant capital expenditures. But there is another direction operators often overlook to maximize the use of their existing operations; upward! 

Our next On The Move webinar will explore the vertical conveyor solutions available to solve the challenge of diminishing space in the DC. This complimentary webinar is titled, "Vertical solutions: elevating your products to the next level," and will take place on Thursday, March 23, 2 p.m. EDT / 11 a.m. PDT. Presented by Joe Joice, vice president of business development for USS, an Intelligrated company, this informative session will answer many questions about the trend of going vertical, including:

  • Why is the option to expand vertically becoming more commonplace?
  • How are commerical logistics models evolving from traditional "push" to consumer-driven "pull"?
  • What are the pros and cons of today's wide variety of vertical lift and conveyance technologies?
  • Which applications are currently benefiting from these vertical conveyor solutions?
  • Where is this technology applicable to manufacturing and assembly environments?

Attendees will learn how modern vertical conveyor solutions enable a wide range of input and discharge height customizations for maximum application flexibility. Joice will demonstrate how these systems can expand to heights up to 30 feet and utilize C-shape, Z-shape and T-shape workflow configurations.

Aside from the obvious advantage of maximizing space utilization, attendees will also learn the many ancillary benefits of vertical sortation solutions, including: enhanced safety, increased efficiencies, higher throughput and decongestion.

So if you're ready to evaluate the viability of vertical solutions to alleviate your DC space constraints, you won't want to miss this important webinar. Register now to join Joe Joice on Thursday, March 23 at 2 p.m. EDT / 11 a.m. PDT. 

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

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