Material Handling Automation in an E-Commerce Environment
By: SupplyChainBrain April 22, 2014
Stephen Cwiak, group vice president and head of subsystems at Interroll, explains how changes in picking and packaging driven by e-commerce are impacting material handling decisions.
The growth in e-commerce is driving many companies to rethink their material handling systems, says Cwiak. “Compared with traditional retail situations e-commerce orders have fewer units, so you need more labor or more automation,” he says. In these situations, belted solutions are usually more efficient than traditional roller conveyors and many companies are moving in that direction, he says.
In addition, smaller orders are more frequently being packaged in padded envelopes or poly bags rather than boxes, which also leads to different conveyor selections.
“With this type of packaging, the operators often are placing product directly on the equipment, which means that we have to close gaps that traditionally may not have needed to be closed,” Cwiak says. “We also need to reduce entanglements or catch points with the packages, which are not as rigid as boxes and have a tendency to fall into places where you don’t want them. So we are continually putting extra guarding in to help protect both workers and packages.”
When equipping a warehouse with automated material handing, it is important to keep flexibility in mind, he says. “We don’t know what packaging may be like in 10 years, so keep in mind that your packaging may change and the products you distribute may change. Selecting conveyors and sortation machines that are flexible and can be used across different types of packaging will be of most benefit.”
To improve and speed return on investment, Cwiak advises companies to select modular systems that can be integrated quickly, reducing the lag time between the equipment’s purchase and the realization of returns. To control ongoing costs, make sure you check out issues around reliability and energy efficiency, he says. “If the equipment is up and running it is giving you a return; if it is breaking down all the time, it is not,” he says.