For years, material handling systems generally meant conveyors in a fixed path to move parcels from Point A to Point B and some level of sortation to distribute those parcels correctly at the end of the process. Today, there are a myriad of options available to parcel shipping and distribution center operators. The correct level, and type, of automation is that which meets the long-term objectives of your business. This article will pose some aspects of today’s automation that you should consider.

Nearly every professional article I’ve ever written has included my ‘one size does not fit all’ message. And it’s still true. A solution for one user may not be appropriate at all for another; even one in the same industry. Each entity has their own goals, methods, risk tolerance, etc. that often guides what is, and what is not, tolerable in a material handling system. The ‘right’ solution for you will likely be the one that correctly balances the following characteristics for your operation:

  • Manual solution – A manual operation is usually the most flexible solution possible. But it’s also not easily scalable to support a growing operation and usually has higher operating costs due to labor. And, as we all know, in today’s world, finding people is a significant challenge.
  • Automated solution – Automated material handling equipment can provide a very high level of efficiency; however, the wrong choice of equipment may result in a loss of flexibility. An automated system designed around handling cartons may be a challenge if your business moves towards polybags.
  • Fixed components – Fixed-in-place components, often referred to as fixed mechanization, refers to classic material handling equipment – conveyors, line sorters, etc. These items are invaluable when moving product in a predictable path. But it is usually expensive to re-configure this capital equipment if an operational change is required.
  • Flexible equipment – Equipment, such as Autonomous Mobile Robots (AMRs), are often referred to as flexible because they (1) do not necessarily follow fixed paths, (2) are more easily scalable to accommodate varying demand and (3) can handle a wide range of products.
  • Hybrid solution – As you’ve probably guessed by now, most of the best solutions are hybrid systems that use all the items above appropriately. For example, automated sorters as the backbone of a high throughput shipping system, AMRs to handle exception product that is incompatible with the fixed automation, and humans to perform value-added tasks that require decision making. These hybrid systems usually provide a lower operating cost than many fully manual or fully automated systems and are more easily modified to keep up with business changes.

You have a lot of choices when considering implementing a new or updated material handling system. There are a lot of great old and new products in the marketplace that can markedly improve your operation. The key takeaway is to make sure that you work towards a system that will support your planned future business needs, and also provides a reasonable chance that it can be modified down the road.

Jim McLafferty is the Director of Post & Parcel Sales at DMW&H. With over 25 years of experience in the material handling industry, Jim is a thought leader in postal deliveries and parcel shipments, and the equipment and systems needed within a warehouse or distribution center to facilitate package deliveries. He can be reached at or 201.635.3439.