We demand our products now. Next day delivery is a necessity and inaccurate delivery is no longer an option. But what kind of implications does this have for the sortation system within the supply chain? John Barton, Managing Director of Keymas, with 21 years of industry experience with successful systems in Argos, Amazon and British Airways, talks us through the latest developments in sortation systems, and highlights key points which can transform warehouse and distribution operations.
Question: Could you talk us through some key innovations that are changing the way sortation works?
Barton: Well, really this depends on what sector you're in…what you're using for product identification… and how you are sorting. The key innovation I see that is really shaking up the industry at the moment is the low cost and speed of computing power.
Question: How does this affect sortation technology?
Barton: With advancements in the speed of computing power we can now get away with some really clever stuff with our software, which in turn allows for the development of designs and capabilities in the hardware which just wasn't possible a few years ago. Now, with the advancements in computing power and software we can 100% track the product through the sortation system, where at one time this would be extremely costly, or just not possible.
Question: How can operators ensure they get the all important return on investment?
Barton: As always certain questions need to be asked in order to ensure return on investment is truly achieved. I would suggest one obvious but crucial question to ask is; what is the operator Sorting? Is it boxes? Mail bags? Or perhaps Uglies (industry term for things that cannot be conveyed easily)
Then, once parameters for the product have been set the operator needs to consider who they will involve in the system development. When considering this the operator needs to move away from involving companies that specialise in one type of sortation technology, such as tilt trays, Bombay sorters etc. Without question these companies will be driven by the need to sell that type of technology. Therefore I would suggest that the best way an operator can ensure they get the best return on investment is to use a company which specialises in the most common and general element of sortation systems, the software, therefore using a company that specialises in sortation software and doesn't have a drive to sell a particular type of sortation technology. I think this will go a long way in ensuring the operator achieves a strong return on investment.
Question: How should companies choose between different systems that are available to them?
Barton: This really is the 64 thousand dollar question. It ties in really with the previous question, as if you bring in a company that sells tilt trays, they are geared up to sell those kinds of systems and they will make sure that they can prove that this is the right sortation system to implement. Of course, in practice, it may not be the most efficient, or may not be the best system to put in. Again, I would suggest that companies look at someone who's independent, and again specialises in the most common element of a sortation system, the software.
However, a particular product may guide the system down a certain route. For example, if you were sorting mail bags, it would be unlikely that you would put this on a roller conveyor, likewise if you were sorting boxes, it would be unlikely that you would put this on an overhead chain conveyor, I say unlikely because all things are possible.
So the simple answer is, look at the solution, but look at it with a company that understands the concept of the solution but is not geared up to selling one particular technology.
Question: In what industries do you see sortation technology growing and developing? Where do you see sortation technology in 5 years? 10 years?
Barton: One of the biggest market growths I've seen concerning sortation technology is in the parcel sortation and deliveries industry. With the growth in the Internet and the demand and drive for next day or even same day delivery we now need to sort things extremely accurately and extremely quickly to respond to customer demand. I would say the innovations in sortation technology has allowed parcel companies and third party distributors to move into areas where maybe 10 or 20 years ago they couldn't possibly afford, technology has brought the cost of sorters down yet reliability has gone up.
Also benefiting this market sector is how technology now handles information. The idea of having information on a particular product that is being sorted, not just a sorter box or package, but to actually have information tied to that particular product, the customer name, the destination, weight, size etc… and the way things are going weight and size are becoming much more chargeable than they ever have done and having the technology to automatically check the size and weight of a product as its being sorted, not manually at the start, but as it is being sorted along with technological advancements in sensors and scanners is causing sortation developments and investments within this industry sector to really take off. So even now, not to mention 5 to 10 years, we can track accurately and precisely intricate information about a product all the way through the warehouse.
Question: Can sortation technology improve other supply chain operations?
Barton: All the way through the supply chain really, right from manufacture. What if a particular product in its delivery box or packaging actually had its own unique number? And that number could be followed all the way through the supply chain? So we could have track and traceability on the product right from point of manufacture and packaging right the way through to point of delivery, allowing it to be sorted easily, to have all the information allied with it, to have its routing, destination, the timing, where it is, who handled it, what lorry it was on, which despatch lane it was in, and to be able to access any of this information at any point in the supply chain process could radically improve many companies distribution efficiency and productivity.