In material handling terms, sortation refers to the induction, separation and diverting of items such as parcels, boxes, cartons, totes, parts, etc. using mechanized or automated systems, according to the item’s next intended destination within a warehouse or distribution center. A sortation system is an integrated material handling conveyor system that automatically inducts, separates, diverts and re-circulates (when appropriate), product within a warehouse or distribution center to a number of possible downstream destinations. Such downstream destinations might include other conveyor or sortation systems, the receiving process, the picking or replenishment process, an automatic palletizing operation, the packing process, order consolidation and staging areas, an audit process or outbound shipments. Sortation systems are often utilized when large quantities of product need to flow to a number of different destinations and the requirements are too great for manual labor to accomplish. These systems can be very versatile and can sort a wide range of product sizes and weights.
Selecting and designing the right conveyor sortation systems for an application’s needs depends on several factors. To assure proper selection and appropriate application of equipment, a significant amount of time should be invested up front to understand all the operational requirements. Some questions that will typically help steer the design process include the following:
- What are the design goals? Is a sorter being considered based on speed and/or accuracy requirements, reduction in manual touches, etc.?
- Is the current operation and floor space conducive to having the sorter located at floor level or does it need to be located overhead to free up floor space?
- What are the specific product dimensions and characteristics? Minimum, maximum and average product dimensions and weights, as well as the range between extremes, will affect and/or impact sortation technologies to be considered. Likewise, the type of product being conveyed – cartons, totes, poly bags, parts/items – will also help determine what types of sortation technologies are applicable.
- What are the specific requirements for the sorter with respect to speed, accuracy, throughput, etc.? When addressing this question, be sure to consider both average and peak requirements for throughput. Ideally, you want to design to accommodate the peak period.
- What are future expansion requirements? Does throughput need to increase over time? Will additional diverts be required over time?
- Will the product to be sorted be shrink or stretch wrapped?
- Does each product have a readable bar code and where is the bar code located?
- How many down lines or diverts are required?
- How will no reads be handled?
Answers to the above questions will help narrow and focus the design process. In the end, though, there are a number of different sortation technologies available to meet the many different application requirements you might find in today’s warehouse or distribution center environment. Below, several popular technologies are grouped according to throughput requirements: