3 Tips to Optimize Your Logistics Sortation Process

Boxes being sorted at distribution

This is the third part of a four-part series examining typical logistics processes within in a distribution center (DC). In our last discussion, we explored opportunities to challenges associated with order fulfillment. Today we will focus on sortation – the heart of the distribution center.

Shipping volumes have risen dramatically because of an increase in both online shopping and non-conveyable (single item) orders. These trends have provided challenges to retail distribution facilities that now must both ship-to-store as well as fulfill online direct ship-to-customer orders. Traditional sorting systems were not designed to handle the increased volume as well as the variety of packaging options, such as poly bags that are now used to ship single item orders.

Highly accurate barcode reading and machine vision systems are playing a larger role in helping organizations improve sorting throughput, decrease product loss, and optimize their operations with real-time performance data and trending information.

Below we describe three popular sortation applications and Cognex’s solution to common challenges.

Categorizing product and packages prior to shipment

Categorizing product and packages prior to shipment

With the shift to increased single item orders, items can vary in size, shape, and fragility which means logistics operations teams need the ability to intelligently guide products through various sortation processes to maximize efficiency. Traditional sortation equipment may only handle certain types of packages; for example, only box-type packages (cuboidal) of a certain size, which means if non-conforming items are incorrectly sorted, they can jam up the process or become damaged. This causes wasted time, extra money, and lower throughput.

Typically, packages are categorized either with sensors or manual measuring. Sensors are prone to error and cannot provide granular data that can be used to make item categorization decisions with acceptable error rates. Manual measuring can be time consuming and open to interpretation. It is hard to find a single solution that handles multiple processes, such as static (manual stations), dynamic (in motion), or complex processes that have curved or roller conveyance.

Using a solution that utilizes both 3D and 2D cameras, such as the Cognex 3D-A1000 dimensioning system, captures both dimensional and volumetric data which can be used for reliable inspection and feedback during sorting operations. The system categorizes cuboidal and non-cuboidal objects and produces a confidence score on the data. In addition, it captures and outputs length, width, and height measurements and object positional data (where it is on the belt) so control systems can execute the proper sorting functions. Using this technology in front of ship sorters keeps operational processes moving smoothly, prevents items from being incorrectly sorted, and reduces manual handling. The solution can be implemented in either a static (manual station) or dynamic (in motion) format and is compact, quick to deploy, and easy to use.

Download Logistics Solutions Guide

Detecting and reporting status of objects on logistics sorter trays

Sorter trays

E-commerce fulfillment and retail distribution facilities need to accurately induct and sort orders and inventory to final shipment locations. Sorting processes must be highly efficient and able to detect and prevent errors that could cause lost product or sorter downtime. Sorters wear down, and accumulate dust, dirt, and labels. Under these conditions, traditional solutions often fail and are expensive to maintain. Some warehouses employ specific staff just to manually adjust, clean, and monitor the sorter. Additionally, existing absence/presence solutions for sorter trays are often complex and require custom programming or only work for specific sorter types.

Processing issues, such as products hanging over a tray, can result in products falling off the sorter. In these cases, customers will not receive the product and the warehouse will have an inaccurate count of their inventory. Without reliable tray occupation data, induct automation can provide wrong or double counts leading to low order accuracy.

Ecommerce and retail distribution facilities can more efficiently run their induction processes using a system that utilizes advanced 3D image processing technology and 2D optics, such as the Cognex 3D-A1000 Item Detection System, to detect objects and identify errors, while ignoring common hygiene issues, such as dirt, dust, and spots on the belt or tray. The 3D-A1000 is factory-calibrated, simple to set up, and adapts to various sorter types without custom programming or complicated calibration. The system works on all tray and sorter types, uses both 3D and 2D data to deliver high detection rates that protect against lost product, and incurs very low false detections that increase sorter efficiency by overcoming problematic environmental and item conditions. Granular data such as item location or carrier feedback enables further automation of induction processes.

Ship sorter scanning

Ship sorter scanning

Ship sorters are the backbone of the distribution facility and are often the last scanning point prior to going onto a truck. Unreadable barcodes (no-reads) at this point means re-circulation, manual handling, and jeopardized customer promises.

Meeting delivery commitments means sorter systems often must read multiple labels and codes quickly and accurately. With the increase in order volumes, achieving efficient sorting operations relies on maximizing throughput (read rates) and minimizing gaps between packages on the line. Fulfillment and distribution centers are constantly seeking ways to increase read rates on their sorting system and need operational data to better understand the causes of no-reads to improve efficiency. Many traditional laser-based scanning solutions do not provide these valuable insights.

Cognex's multi-reader tunnels using image-based barcode readers, such as the Cognex DataMan 470, have the speed and accuracy to accommodate high-speed ship sorting demands, ensuring that packages are properly sorted and delivered on time. The multi-sided scanning tunnels read codes on packages from any angle, so operators do not have to spend extra time aligning packages to the barcode scanner.

Cognex barcode scanning tunnels are designed to read damaged codes at extreme perspectives on all sides of the box, even with the high speed and small gapping requirements of today’s ship sorters. This allows a facility to increase throughput, without impacting sort accuracy. Cognex tunnels improve throughput by reducing gaps, decrease system costs through less rework, and provide customers with system performance feedback for process optimization. Performance feedback data includes image off-load for visual feedback and photographic proof of errors, code quality metrics, and heat mapping all of which provide insights into the root causes of no reads and helps operations teams fix issues that are happening elsewhere in the facility.

This blog highlighted just a few of the most common applications that can be optimized for sortation. Browse our library of logistics applications and logistics barcode reading systems and tunnel solutions to learn how Cognex image-based barcode readers and machine vision solutions help improve efficiency and traceability, increase throughput, and optimize processes.

Stop by in a couple weeks when we discuss outbound logistics.

Download Logistics Solutions Guide


Mike Poe

Global Content Marketing Manager, Cognex

A technology marketer for over two decades, Mike enjoys communicating how technology can improve business outcomes. Over his career, he’s helped businesses in many industries understand the value of technology through work at Dell/EMC, Sun Microsystems, a few technology startups, and, since January 2020, at Cognex. When not extolling the virtues of using machine vision across various industries, he can be found exploring local Massachusetts and Cape Cod waterways with his kayak, taking in local craft breweries, or working on home improvement projects.

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