3 Ways to Power Up Your Inbound Logistics Operations

people putting boxes on conveyor belt

This is the first part of a four-part series examining typical logistics processes within in a distribution center (DC). We will focus on the four major functional areas: inbound logistics, order fulfillment, sortation, and outbound logistics. This blog will discuss a few examples of the many inbound logistics functions and ways to improve throughput, efficiency, and traceability.

Regardless of the size of your operation, the logistics process begins with receiving inbound goods. As online demand has increased and DCs are asked to process more single-item orders, operations teams are tasked with not only maintaining efficiency but keeping track of goods from the moment they enter the DC to when they leave. Increased demand also brings with it another challenge: scaling operations across the DC without sacrificing quality or jeopardizing customer delivery expectations.

Below we describe three popular inbound logistics applications and Cognex’s solutions to common challenges.

Receiving goods at the dock door

Receiving goods at dock door

When trucks arrive at a loading dock, items are unloaded and put into inventory. Increased customer demand for shorter delivery windows puts pressure on DCs to quickly process incoming goods. In some cases, unloaded items are manually compared to a paper manifest, and in others, operators use hand- or wrist-based laser scanners to automate this process. In both situations, inaccuracies and inefficiencies can lead to increased costs, poor inventory control, and lack of traceability, not to mention downstream problems which can lead to customers not receiving their orders in a timely manner. Here are two approaches we have found to improve receiving throughput while improving traceability.

Overhead Hands-Free Barcode Reading

Overhead hands free

Scanning packages as they enter the crates an opportunity to find issues faster to reduce problems later and manage expectations with the store or end customer. There are a few ways traceability can be implemented or improved at the receiving dock door. Solutions range based on factors including how many operators your facility requires as part of the inbound logistics process as well as throughput requirements.

Deploying overhead hands-free barcode reading, with fixed-mount image-based barcode readers, such as the Cognex DataMan 470, offer a hands-free solution to reading codes quickly, efficiently, and accurately. Overhead barcode reading allows operators to read and unload more boxes per minute than if using handheld or ring scanners. In addition, presentation reading at the inbound dock door ensures distribution or fulfillment facilities receive the correct items, improves inventory management, eliminate costly returns, and improves overall package traceability.

Barcode Reading Tunnels

Barcode reading tunnel

For distribution centers that process very high volumes of goods, full automation may be a better option. Using multi-sided barcode reading tunnels with image-based barcode readers such as the Cognex DataMan 470, facilities reap the benefits of fast throughput, higher levels of automation, increased traceability with less manual handling, and lower cost of operations. Image-based fixed-mount barcode readers provide complete, high-speed reading coverage regardless of the position or condition of the codes. If you are looking to increase throughput, one way to do that is to reduce the spacing between packages. To achieve this, you need a system that can quickly and accurately read codes from extreme perspectives (reading labels on the sides of the box that are on the inside of the gaps between the packages). 

Another important point to consider is how to quickly diagnose potential problems where codes are not read correctly. Using image-based barcode reading technology that provides real-time feedback on read rates as well as the capability to off-load images of no-reads can help operations management more quickly understand the source of problems before they become bigger issues downstream.

Download Logistics Solutions Guide

Categorizing items for special handling or storage

Categorizing items for special handling

Distribution and fulfillment facilities routinely handle a variety of package types, from normal boxes to poly bags, to oddly shaped, non-cuboidal items. Based on the shape, package type, and contents, many of these items require special handling or they may need to be stored in a specific place in the warehouse based on sell-through. For these reasons, warehouse management systems (WMS) need to categorize goods so they can be both handled and stored correctly. In many situations, operators manually key information into the system, which adds time and cost to the process. Automated categorization systems exist, but many are bulky, expensive, and hard to use.

Capturing and recording dimensional data and package type makes this process more efficient. There are options on the market, but many are bulky, expensive, and complex, others have trouble dimensioning low profile items. However, there are dimensioning solutions, Such as Cognex’s 3D-A1000 Dimensioning System, that are simple to set up and use, perform well at line speeds, and affordable. Consider a solution that provides a combination of both 3D and 2D technology for fast acquisition of dimensional data, and image-based inspection. This type of solution automates the inbound item categorization process which increases traceability, improves inventory management, and lowers the overall cost of operations. Having the capability to differentiate items, such as boxes and poly bags, helps route incoming products to the right handling equipment as well as sort objects based on size for proper warehouse storage.

Printing-and-Applying Internal Labels

Print and apply

Many e-commerce and retail distribution facilities print and apply labels to incoming goods to ensure the label on the box meets the operational standards of the facility. The process requires tracking labels to be accurately printed and applied to ensure each item is sorted and routed correctly. Label machines can occasionally print a bad label, or the machine may not affix the label correctly to the package. Smudged, wrinkled, flagged, or improperly placed labels lower read rates and lead to costly manual rework, delayed shipments, and even fines.

Using a top-sided barcode reading tunnel using image-based barcode readers, such as the Cognex DataMan 260, after the label application process can verify that labels are correct. Using a solution that achieves up to 99.9% read rates ensures damaged or smudged codes can be read quickly and correctly. Additionally, using a barcode reading solution that includes code quality metrics adds a quality control element into your process. These type of barcode readers flag poor quality codes for immediate resolution before they make their way into the sortation process and divert the problematic packages for immediate rework avoiding jams, mis-reads, mis-sorts, or other issues downstream.

This article highlighted just a few of the most common applications that can be optimized for inbound logistics. There are many others such as manifest verification and pallet scanning that are candidates for increased efficiency and cost savings. 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 order fulfillment applications.

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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