Hands-free DCs within the CEP industry’s grasp

More often than not, the technology grabbing the headlines is not the most feasible step forward. The media can't get enough of drones and driverless vehicles, for example, but a future scenario in which our local streets start to resemble the backdrop of a sci-fi film is still a long way off.

However, behind the closed doors of warehouses and distribution centres (DCs), automation is making such an impact that processes, and even entire operations, can function without human intervention.

This article will take a closer look at the various forms of automation helping to optimise processes at the DCs used by the CEP industry.

Automation: more than robotics

Automation is often used interchangeably with robotics, but it covers a far wider range of technologies, embracing anything that reduces the need for human intervention.

The truth is that it’s been around for centuries. And the use of simple conveyor belts, for example, means the CEP industry’s DCs have been semi-automated for years.

But now, thanks to technological advances, the goal of fully automated DCs is within the industry’s reach: it just needs to eliminate manual interventions.

Eliminating manual interventions

Manual interventions are no longer needed much during the sortation process, but they remain important at both the DC’s entry and exit points.

From being loaded onto the belt and sometimes properly placed so the parcel is identifiable, to being transported and then sequenced and loaded onto a delivery truck, labour remains, as it does for maintenance work, a requisite.

The general rule of thumb for CEP operators is they spend 20 percent of their labour resources handling 80 percent of their parcels, and the remaining 80 percent on the other 20 percent.

The goal, of course, is to consign this equation to the history books, so let’s take a look at the various automation technologies that can eliminate the need for manual intervention:

  • AMRs
  • OCR solutions
  • Piece-picking robots
  • Automotive sequencing

Upward mobility for the robots

A major contributor to fully automated Dark Warehouses, AMRs (autonomous mobile robots) currently provide a relatively simple and flexible solution for loading and unloading trucks, feeding conveyor belts and moving odd-shaped and heavy items.

They operate best in fully automated environments because a human presence can slow them down due to safety requirements.

Regulatory measures have somewhat slowed their development, so more advances are expected – particularly in regards to optimally filling containers and then optimally filling trucks.

Used in combination with automated sequencing and the ever-evolving field of ‘Parcel Tetris’ to minimise the ‘Transport of Air’ –AMRs can play a large role in achieving the goal of DCs operating like Dark Warehouses.

Fast-working camera tech

To optimise the processes at work in the DCs, the system needs to be able to swiftly identify the size, weight, shape and form of the parcels to determine whether they can be routinely sorted or set aside to be handled differently.

Such items include those of an irregular shape, such as a poster, and fragile goods, such as glassware or antiques.

Last year’s launch of the Cloud-based OCR bodes well for a future in which parcels can be quickly identified based on their size, shape and form.

At present, its primary focus is ID-based barcodes and printed text deemed unreadable by the scanner, of which it can identify 60 percent, reducing the percentage of undefined IDs from 5 to 2 percent of the total throughput.

Crucially, it takes just three to four seconds using five to six cameras, so identifying problematic parcels is a formality.

Fished out before it spoils

Once the problematic parcel has been identified, and it’s established it can’t be routinely diverted off the conveyor belt, it’s the job of the piece-picking robots to fish it out – an intervention that previously needed to be made manually.

Once the robotic arm or arms pick up the item, it has the choice of placing it in a container or its own separate tote, or directing it onto an AMR.

Onboard an AMR, it can then be transported to the delivery truck, where it is remerged with the load of the fully automated process.

Ready to be delivered

Once remerged, the irregular items will be sorted by automated sequencing to ensure they are conveniently available to the driver in the order they will be delivered.

This eliminates the lengthy process of drivers manually sequencing their loads, which tends to take up to 60 minutes. Automated sequencing and loading can be reduced to only 15 minutes.

The process assesses route data to release parcels in the exact order they will be delivered, interfaces with the route planning system and loads the vehicle back-to-front, so the driver can source parcels in the exact order they will be delivered.

The automation, which is carried out in overhead space, is enabled by the system’s dynamic storage buffer, which sorts and sequences parcels based on their ID and delivery route.


This article has taken you on a journey of automation through tomorrow’s distribution centres: from the entry point to the exit. Making use of the same AMRs that have made Dark Warehouses a reality, backed by a cast of handy hands-free tech, parcels need never be manually handled again. It’s no exaggeration to say a hands-free future at the DCs is within the CEP industry’s grasp.

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