A perfect match: Why a pouch system is ideal technology for sorting small parcels in CEP operations

Distribution centres have long had to deal with the problem of small parcels that are not easily handled by usual automated sorting equipment. And with the surge of global e-commerce, small parcels are becoming even more problematic for CEP companies. We take a look at the pouch system and how it is becoming an alternative technology that is able to solve the small parcel problem.

By Brian Hansen

The difficult small parcel

Small parcels are generally regarded as those that range in size at the minimum 50x50x1 mm (or 20g in weight) to the maximum size of 450x300x200 (or 5 kg in weight). They can be small items coming from the fashion industry or from different parts of the world.

But what creates the difficulty in their sortation is their often irregular geometrical shapes. Whether round or lumpy, or polybags containing just one item or the item has more than one natural surface, these irregular small parcels can move uncontrollably at any given time, creating jams and blockages in the sortation system.

To add to it, cost-efficient packaging of various sizes and quality is increasingly being used in the world of e-commerce sales, making small parcel handling more and more difficult for normal automated sortation equipment.

With today’s framework technology struggling to handle these small parcels, many distribution centres are having trouble optimising their processes and risk having to handle small parcels manually.

Pouch systems as an alternative technology

Existing sortation systems typically utilise loop sorters or line sorters that are dependent on transporting items at high speed to meet capacity.

But small parcels can in fact be handled differently.

For decades, the fashion industry has deployed the pouch system – an overhead conveying system in which an item is placed in an individual pouch or bag and contained in an enclosed environment so it can be conveyed anywhere throughout the system.

The same pouch system can now be applied to parcel sortation. Being an enclosed conveying system, it is especially suited to difficult small parcels and can be implemented to fully support traditional cross-dock sorting.

How a pouch system works in the CEP context

Here are the principles of how a pouch system works in the CEP sortation process.

1. Inbound items are split between large and small items

In a normal environment, inbound items will consist of both small and large parcels so they will need to be separated, either through robotic technology or usual sortation equipment, depending on the centre’s application. Large, regular parcels will be sent for traditional sortation, while the small parcels will be directed to the pouch system.

2. Items are placed in a pouch and enter a dynamic buffer

Each small parcel is placed in an individual pouch which enters a dynamic buffer system. (The system is called a buffer system because pouches are easily added to the buffer and just as easily retrieved.)

Induction into the pouches can be automated with possibilities to integrate automated induction with other technologies such as a feeding line of a traditional system. Induction can also be carried out manually if some items are known to be fragile and needing special attention, for example.

The pouch then moves into the air and off the distribution centre’s floor.

3. The item is sorted and sequenced

The small parcel is then sorted according to operating times and other criteria, and if need be, sequenced. The sortation is directed by an algorithm and while the pouches are still overhead.

4. The item is retrieved for transportation

When the small parcel is needed for delivery, its pouch is called down and retrieved from the ceiling and either manually or automatically unloaded into a bag, york, cage or whatever device being used for transportation. If the item does not need to be delivered immediately, it can remain overhead in the system where it is stored until the means of transportation arrives.

The advantages of the pouch system

Pouch systems offer many advantages to CEP operators looking for more efficient ways of sorting and handling small and difficult parcels.

Firstly, the small parcel is contained within a pouch so there is no risk of losing it in the sortation process. As a RFID tag is attached to the pouch, there is also no risk of losing its tracking.

The built-in buffer functionality means that the CEP centre can leverage the arrival and departure profiles of the parcel mix to reach the optimal solution.

The system sorts and sequences items so they can be prepared for the last mile. The sequencing can cater for cut-off times or any other planning criterion and can interface with the CEP operator’s route planning system.

Where most centres need to closely link their arrival and departure handling, the pouch system allows the company to separate the two, physically and in time – giving the CEP company greater opportunity to extend its existing operating times and optimise its staff.

The system stoppages and associated downtime that traditional equipment typically experience when handling small parcels are significantly reduced – positively impacting equipment lifetime and manpower costs.

The overhead conveying equipment optimises the CEP centre’s handling space and allows part of the centre to operate in the dark. The system gives the CEP operator a way to sort, and source small parcels easily and away from the remaining equipment.

The system provides a storage dimension to the CEP company’s operations. This can be a  particularly effective way of dealing with unpaid duty items.

The technology easily integrates with traditional sortation technology – on the mechanical, electrical and software levels – so complements existing cross belts and line sorters.


A pouch system is another tool in a CEP company’s toolbox by which it can optimise its sortation and handling of difficult and small parcels. The technology can remove a lot of pressure on parcel operators in finding the space and ability to deal with small and difficult parcel sortation. They have the option to either integrate the system with their existing technologies or implement it to fully replace their cross-belt or loop sorters for handling smalls. Either way, its is a highly effective means of dealing with the troublesome small parcel.

To gain a greater understanding of how a pouch system works in the CEP context, watch our webinar here.

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