The digital age has transformed the postal sector, offering alternatives for personal correspondence, billing, advertising and news, while driving the growth of e-commerce. Increasing parcel volumes, aggressive delivery timelines and other pressures confront operations with unprecedented postal processing challenges.
These topics will be the focus of the educational sessions and solution demonstrations at the National Postal Forum, May 21-24 in Baltimore. For a preview of what's to come at NPF, read on for the top five challenges facing parcel and postal sortation operations today.
Challenge 1: Package variety
E-commerce is the fastest growing retail segment, with direct-to-consumer orders accounting for over half of shipping volume since 2014. In addition to flats and letters, this challenges postal sortation solutions with a variety of product sizes and shapes like soft packs, polybags and corrugate boxes. And this shift is not yet complete - while most parcel volume is currently between 44-88 pounds, the dominance may switch to small packets less than 4.4 pounds. The variety of packaging types forces postal operations to find sortation solutions with the capability to keep up. For example, sliding shoe, tilt-tray and cross-belt sorters provide fast, gentle handling of letters, soft packs, polybags, corrugated cases, cartons, totes and other odd or oversized items.
Challenge 2: Volume
In addition to a variety of package types, postal sortation systems must process growing order volumes. While traditional mail volume has remained relatively flat since 2012, USPS has seen significant increases in package deliveries, driven by e-commerce. In that sense, postal operation sortation systems have adopted many of the same characteristics of sortation solutions for e-commerce. Serving this expanded volume has also driven major logistics companies to expand their operations, opening up one or two new regional sorting hubs, on average. Sortation solutions must offer the necessary throughput speed and scalability to deliver dependable, accurate throughput during seasonal spikes or long-term growth in volume. Tilt-tray and cross-belt sorters are capable of delivering the necessary capacity and speed when handling the wide-ranging product mix of post and parcel sorting environments.
Challenge 3: Automation integration
Automation offers a solution to improve overall postal operator efficiency. Part of this benefit comes from streamlining processes and reducing manual touches, helping protect operations from labor shortages as demographic shifts make their mark on the workforce. In modern processing centers, these automated systems include more than just sortation, as a variety of transportation and diverting functions can be automated. Putting conveyor, sortation, software and other technologies together requires deep integration experience and the capability to handle emerging technologies. As more businesses adopt the Internet of Things, data gathered from automation can help fuel this data-driven quest for greater efficiency and transparency. More post and parcel logistics processes continue to be automated, with significant increases in drone use over the last two years as companies explore adopting them as an everyday delivery solution.
Challenge 4: Customer expectation
At the click of a mouse or tap of a touch screen, consumers expect quick access to a variety of products from virtually anywhere. Keeping up with aggressive delivery timelines requires order fulfillment solutions that leverage sortation for greater efficiency inside and outside the four walls, setting up downstream logistics processes for success. For example, sequentially releasing orders to match delivery routes offers greater efficiency after leaving the processing hub. Furthermore, postal operators and retailers must collaborate to enable different delivery features, such as click-and-collect, parcel lockers and delivery time visibility into logistics processes. In the race for speed and transparency, postal operators must adapt their logistics and IT processes to keep up.
Challenge 5: Space utilization
As population dynamics shift and more people move to cities, carriers must serve greater volumes in areas with limited, more expensive real estate. Instead of building out, these conditions encourage postal operations to build up and increase storage density by adopting vertical storage solutions. Implementing vertical sortation solutions saves valuable floor space and can save money - helping avoid the cost of expansion or new construction.
To learn more about innovative sortation solutions designed to overcome the challenges facing post and parcel operations, visit USS, an Intelligrated company, at NPF booth #309 or email email@example.com to schedule a meeting at the show.
The benefits of voice technology in the warehouse are indisputable. From increased throughput and accuracy to reductions in training time, errors and employee turnover, voice solutions are becoming an essential asset in the DC operations manager's toolkit. But what if they could extend those benefits even further, and in doing so create a performance-driven culture of excellence that addresses today's rising labor challenges? By pairing voice with labor management software (LMS), they can.
It's estimated that order fulfillment and replenishment activities account for up to 65 percent of total warehouse expenses. And with the ever-increasing complexities of omnichannel and direct-to-order fulfillment, some say this is a conservative estimate. Couple that with rising labor costs, changing workforce demographics, and the difficulty attracting and retaining qualified employees, and the importance effective labor management becomes even more imperative. It's no surprise then that many businesses are combining LMS software with their voice systems to maximize employee productivity and DC performance. Here are five ways LMS helps achieve these goals:
1. Increase employee engagement: LMS helps employees connect their individual performance with the company's larger objectives to help them feel empowered and understand their impact on their employer's overall success. This transparency also opens the lines of communication between management and employees to create a continuous improvement loop.
2. Incentivize performance: Both monetary and non-monetary incentive programs have proved extremely effective in driving performance. LMS allows companies to tune their incentives so that every 50¢ increase paid in incentives nets the company a $1 increase in throughput.
3. Improve labor planning: During peak periods, operations managers often overstaff up to 25 percent to ensure all orders are fulfilled. Across different areas of the facility and a larger DC network, this overstaffing quickly adds up. LMS allows managers to pull up historical data to develop more accurate staffing models during peak periods, even when sometimes eliminating the need for additional resources.
4. Adapt to the unexpected: Inevitably, things will not go as planned. With real-time execution monitoring, LMS helps managers quickly adapt to increases in demand before service level agreements are impacted.
5. Drive measurable performance improvements: Returns on an LMS investment depend on where DCs currently are in their performance optimization continuum. But, through the processes of developing labor standards and establishing performance incentives, a typical LMS implementation drives anywhere from 25-60 percent average throughput gains - with some statistical outliers even exceeding 100 percent improvements.
Intelligrated's GoalPost® LMS has been successfully deployed on countless occasions - in combination with our Voice Solutions or other voice systems - to enable these benefits in the warehouse. While robust data and reporting are at the core of our LMS offering, it's the tangible transformation of the workplace culture that is the true measurement of success. If you're ready to instill a culture of accountability, reward and retain your best employees, and realize true throughput gains, consider the benefits labor management software can bring to your operations.
Predicting the future of supply chain management can be a fool's game. Media outlets and trade associations alike hail big data, robotic solutions, the cloud and predictive analytics as the disruptive technologies and trends set to meet supply chain challenges of the future. But what about the here and now? Of the technologies pegged to cause disruption or drive competitive advantage in the 2016 MHI Annual Industry Report, two have already made a bigger impact than previously expected: robotics and automation, and driverless vehicles and drones.
Since their inception in manufacturing environments in 1954, robotics have delivered real-world results, helping companies optimize processes, improve efficiency and create a more flexible experience for workers. As today's operations battle SKU proliferation, managing a wide range of product and packaging types, the flexibility and adaptability of robotic solutions offer the right attributes to meet more dynamic downstream demand.
Case in point: Kelly-Moore Paints™ installed an Alvey robotics palletizing system that resulted in trading high employee turnover and injury risk of manual palletizing for the speed and reliability of automation. Prior to installing an end-of-line robotic palletizer, Kelly-Moore employees were hand-palletizing products weighing up to 70 pounds, leading to production flow inefficiencies. Intelligrated's robotic palletizing system now enables the line to run at an even pace throughout the day by eliminating the breaks required by heavy-lifting in the manual process. Additional efficiencies of the robotic palletizers came through faster line changeovers, which now take only nine minutes compared to 45 minutes with the old system.
But this technology can go much further than robotic palletizers in the warehouse or manufacturing facility. There are flexible, reliable robotic solutions to increase line speed, workplace safety and order accuracy in the following applications:
- Robotic case packing and unpacking
- Robotic picking
- Robotic depalletizing
- Robotic tote handling
In the long-term, robotic integration and other industrial automation increases productivity and creates safer work environments. And with the increasing demands of e-commerce fulfillment, new robotic solutions continue to emerge.
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.
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 mattter 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.