Odd-shaped parcels and how to deal with them

Round, uneven and oblong, you name it. Odd-shaped parcels have always been in the mix, but with a global and significant increase in parcels, the overall amount of non-conveyables has risen. Much to the detriment of CEP companies, which sometimes find themselves in a balancing act between customer satisfaction and maintaining their business objectives, due to these unruly items.

By Bjarne D. Johansen


In a variety of different and important ways, automation has been an incredibly positive development for CEP companies and their customers. Just take a look at some of the benefits:

Guaranteed short delivery time with full information of where and when parcels will be delivered.

Not only will an automated high-speed sortation system minimise the cost per item, faster sortation capacity enables companies to achieve shorter delivery times, and precise placement during sortation results in fewer misrouted items. Then, there is the flexibility to handle parcels with different sizes, shapes, weights, and textures on the same sorter as well as the ability to use a single system to handle different sortation tasks.

The bottom line is that automation has been a huge hit. There is, however, one challenge that not even automation has been able to crack: odd-shaped parcels.

Too big, small or round

Odd-shaped parcels. Odd-sized parcels. Or perhaps the most descriptive term of them all: non-conveyables.

Think of round objects, such as footballs and tubes. And parcels with more than one natural surface, which the system will most often confuse with two parcels. Long, unevenly-shaped parcels, such as car exhaust pipes, for example, can also be tricky. Round objects will move uncontrollably, at any given time, and potentially create jams and blockages on the conveyors. Long items are difficult because – well – they are long and just not very handy.

These are items that cannot be processed on a typical standard machine, either because of size – either too big or too small – shape or weight. They roll and don’t move as anticipated. They block the system. If they are too small, they risk getting lost or stuck somewhere in the system. If they are too big, they cannot be transported through the system.

The difficult 20 percent

Why are these pesky parcels such a big issue? A rule of thumb says that 80 percent of a CEP distributor’s items are conveyable and will require around 20 percent of the operators – and vice versa, the 20 percent non-conveyables require 80 percent of the operator’s attention.

The numbers make it plain to see why no stones have been left unturned, when it comes to automating the handling of as many items as possible.

Designing a distribution centre that relies heavily on manual labour would, in theory, be a way of dealing with non-conveyables. But then again, in today’s hyper-competitive market, no CEP company would be able to sustain a healthy business if it gave up on machines.

So, what other options are left?

Packaging may be key

Getting rid of all non-conveyables is probably not a realistic goal. What distribution centres look at is this: will it be possible to reduce the amount of odd-sized parcels, while also maintaining a sound business case?

One of the important focus areas is packaging.

Some companies experiment with requesting that difficult items are generally wrapped in a conveyable packaging – or consider charging customers a higher price to perform “non-machinable” services. Both possibilities come with an added cost for the sender, which might be a competitive risk. Of course, this risk and reward scenario is something that companies in the CEP industry factor into their considerations.

Read more: “Automated parcel sorting – an introductory guide.”

The bottom-line benefits of an intentional strategy to minimise the number of non-conveyables: fewer non-conveyables equals fewer machine operators going forward. It is perhaps a good trade even if a few customers try to find another operator.

Focus on the business case

At this point, there isn’t a perfect solution that makes non-conveyables go away completely. The best way to deal with the problem is to conduct a thorough analysis of your business, and then go with the solution that makes the most sense.

Perhaps you will find that it makes sense to adopt a system that can handle a wider profile of items – and possibly combined with a dedicated solution for non-conveyables handling and conveyable aids to achieve a higher degree of utilisation of standard system solutions. Such a case might open up for new business possibilities. You might be able to acquire new customers with a different parcel mix than your present customers.

If your company is in a situation where the amount of non-conveyables increases drastically, the best way to go about it is to make a business case, based on the assessment of current and projected manpower in the future, the number of forklifts in the operation, free floor space and so forth. This assessment would give a fairly good overview of the situation, including the most desirable way for your company to handle odd-sized parcels.

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