Sorting Out Warehouse Automation

Warehouse automation can be a good way to reduce labor and improve efficiency and overall accuracy while spending less money. The technology available for sorting units and packages to specific locations for packing and shipping offers several possibilities for multichannel retailers.

Unit sorters are best suited for applications involving a few SKUs over many orders. Sorters can be categorized based on the required throughput in terms of the number of sorts required per minute. Options available include:

  • Slow: less than 30 sorts per minute (Deflector arms or pusher type sorters)
  • Medium: 30–150 sorts per minute (Pop-up wheel sorters)
  • Fast: 150–400 sorts per minute

These faster sorters are available in three types:

Sliding shoe

  • Wide range of product sizes and weights possible
  • Possible item types include small soft products, larger and fragile
  • Items in poly bags with flat bottoms can be sorted
  • The sorter can be run at slower speeds for lower throughput requirements
  • Approximate budget costs can be in the area of $750,000

Bombay sorter

  • Good for small and light items
  • Smaller footprint than other sorters
  • Not a good fit for food products, products weighing more than 15 lbs., or items larger than 24” x 36”.
  • Best application is for operations with over 4,000 units per hour
  • 100-chute system is in the budget range of $650,000
  • Payback usually less than two years

Tilt tray sorter

  • Good for applications with smaller lightweight to medium weight items
  • Variable shapes and sizes of products can be accommodated up to the size of the tray
  • Requires a fairly large footprint
  • Somewhat inflexible for expansion if not initially designed properly
  • Costs can range to $1 million dollars and more

Given the high costs to acquire a customer, fulfillment has become a potential key competitive advantage for merchants. Smart selection and use of automation such as sorters is key for this critical component of your business model.

For more on this topic, see my article “Time to automate your DC?” in the July issue of MULTICHANNEL MERCHANT.

Curt Barry ( is president of F. Curtis Barry & Co., a multichannel operations and fulfillment consultancy.

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