E-commerce orders during this year’s holiday season are projected to be more than 15% higher than last year’s levels — a prediction that should motivate both maintenance and operational professionals to start preparing now for peak volumes.

Peak season is no longer only about getting product out to stores or fulfilling direct-to-consumer orders; it’s also about handling holiday returns. With about 40% of e-commerce sales being returned, peak season has extended into well into January when operations focus on reverse logistics. Sorters are processing full cases of goods and fulfilling orders by day, then sorting returned items back down to their SKUs by night.

The holiday season can severely stretch distribution center operations as systems, equipment, and personnel all run much harder and longer. Maintenance and servicing issues can often multiply, causing an interruption in operations. Additionally, temporary staff with less experience and problem-solving ability is hired to accommodate increases in shifts and operating hours.

Just as you wouldn’t wait until the last minute to plan and prepare for a big family vacation or event, you likewise shouldn’t begin planning for peak season just prior to ramp-up. Being prepared can prevent the far-reaching ill effects of peak season downtime. Here are a few tips on how to be ready:

Plan with adequate lead time. Working through potential peak season issues should begin three to five months in advance (but don’t worry; any preparation is better than none. So even if you haven’t started yet, you still have time!). It takes time to identify, document and analyze areas of potential risk. Ample lead time also is necessary to implement, test, and evaluate new processes.

A fully primed and tested peak season plan that focuses on key systems, personnel, maintenance, and operational processes is critical to ensuring that your center is ready to handle any disruptions the season may bring and performs at the service levels it has been designed to deliver.

Take a look back. A plan for the future always benefits from a look at the past. Examining and evaluating your maintenance and operational records will help you identify systemic issues or previous areas of concern. Knowing where bottlenecks occurred in the past will help you develop an effective action plan should history repeat itself.

Documenting and tracking everyday events such as equipment failures, unscheduled shutdowns in conveyors or sortation equipment, interruptions in order flow, and reductions in service levels and throughput will give you the historical data you need to clearly identify areas of vulnerability. Once documented, a half-hour review of these diagnostics on a regular basis will keep you sharp on the details of a fix that can prevent four hours in downtime during peak season.

Simulate with surge testing. During peak season, 5,000 items sorted per hour can quickly increase to 20,000 items per hour. Surge testing is an effective way to simulate high-demand conditions. A best practice is to conduct the test four to six weeks prior to the season's start. A typical surge testing process includes holding back up to half of a normal day's throughput, then sending it all during a compressed three- to four-hour period to replicate peak volume and operating conditions.

It's important to have knowledgeable observers at all key areas of assessment, with instructions on what to observe and how to capture information. For example, if you experience an increased rate of bad reads at sortation induction, you can assess if operators are positioning the product improperly, or if the quality of labels has been compromised. Surge testing can help you identify these issues and give you the opportunity to implement process improvements or training.

Pay attention to preventative maintenance. Today's technologies are engineered to be robust and perform optimally under demanding conditions. These systems operate best with preventative maintenance (PM) programs that follow that manufacturer's recommendations. Normally, recommendations are based on a standard number of operating hours.

Historical data and surge testing will help you identify areas that may need increased maintenance intervals. Conduct inspections and audits focusing on equipment components — photo eyes and sensors, motors and belt alignments, cabling — subject to increased wear and tear as utilization surges.

Consult with key systems suppliers for insight on where to focus your increased PM intervals and spare parts planning. Your suppliers also can provide refresher training for maintenance personnel on troubleshooting and prompt repair.

Craft an emergency response plan. With a preventative maintenance plan in place, it’s also important to review your plan for emergency maintenance to ensure you have the expertise, partners and parts necessary to handle the increased operating hours and multiple-shift conditions of peak season.

Identify the key equipment that could bring operations to a halt should it go offline. An emergency response plan will give you a leg up on handling issues as quickly and intelligently as possible.

Keep IT informed. Equipment in today’s sortation and distribution centers is IT-driven, which means that 24/7 IT support is critical. It is important to have an IT response process in place and to understand how, when and whom to contact.

Make certain that your on-site IT staff has the proper training and level of expertise to troubleshoot and manage potential IT issues. And make sure that they have access to tech support from your equipment partners for remote assistance, if needed.

Invest in spare parts. Distribution centers that invest in the appropriate level of spare parts understand the value of downtime. Your peak season maintenance and response plan will help you identify which spare parts you and your equipment partners should have readily available for fast repairs. And always double-check your spare parts inventory prior to peak season.

Make staffing and training part of the plan. No peak season plan is complete without a workforce component. The plan should call for sufficient staffing levels for all shifts, including production associates, supervisory personnel, maintenance teams, IT resources, and managerial level team members who may be needed to help coordinate and resolve complex issues or set priorities. Additionally, the plan should include refresher training for supervisory personnel and sufficient training for temporary workers.

While it is difficult to anticipate every possible peak season hiccup, a well-documented plan for communicating and responding to issues is the best tool for handling the unexpected.

Mark Sibley is Vice President of Customer Support, BEUMER Corporation.