Pack Station Automation Investment Pays Off (Part Two)

Pack Station Automation Investment Pays Off (Part Two)

Packing is Not an End of Line Operation

Even though the packing and shipping operations physically occur at the end of the order picking and fulfillment processes, intelligent pack station design requires that packing and shipping be approached holistically and considered as a fully integrated order picking and fulfillment operation.

Start by looking at order flow.  How are orders reaching the packing operation – uniformly or in balanced or unbalanced zones?  In most medium to high volume distribution centers, orders generally reach packing in unbalanced zones.  If that’s the case, the orders must be buffered or consolidated prior to being released to the packing operation.  The faster the order picking speed, the more buffer is required.

There are several ways to buffer or consolidate orders.  Conveyor systemscross belt and tilt tray systems may be the most appropriate.


For low to medium volume applications or the need to have up to hundreds of orders buffered at any one time, horizontal carousels or reverse pick-to-light flow racks may be the answer for buffering and consolidation.  Horizontal carousels provide reduced labor, flexible size, modularity, minimum floor space requirements and low acquisition cost but limited velocity.  Flow racks offer high velocity and low installation cost, but require a floor space commitment and more labor.

Sortation is another process to consider.  Every order is NOT the same.  Practically speaking, orders that contain fragile items, large orders, very small orders, one line orders or heavy items should be handled in the packing operation differently from standard weight and size orders and differently from each other.

A sortation system, usually a conveyor, identifies, separates and conveys boxes or totes from the main conveyor line to a specific station set up to handle a specific type of order.  Simple rules set up in the WMS software can intelligently route orders to the proper pack station using a sortation system.  This approach to pack station design can result in higher shipping volumes, extended cutoff times and less labor overall.

Handling Paperwork

Automation of document printing and insertion offers another means of improving packing throughput and labor efficiency.  The manual placement of order documentation is a labor-intensive operation and one that is subject to error.  It’s much better to have packers focus on order accuracy than document insertion.

An automated printer and inserter, such as the Integrated Systems Design UltraSert™ system, can print customized company documents – including manifests, invoices, operating instructions and return information and labels.  After printing is completed, documentation for that order can be folded (if necessary) and inserted into the container.  Every order is double scanned and verified to assure that the correct documents are printed and placed correctly.


Automated document insertion can reduce costs and also provide a foundation for profitable third party promotional insertions.  Many national brands are looking for ways to reach prospects and packaging inserts are a way to do that.  It can become a profit center for your operations.

Fitting Box to Product

Right size packaging is an important consideration in streamlining packing operations.  Too many carton sizes take up valuable floor space.  Some distribution centers use a set number of box sizes, often three to seven sizes.  This is a workable approach with a stable inventory and a WMS program that selects the right size for the specific order.

Another approach is the use of on-demand packaging systems.  On-demand packaging creates right size boxes and cartons as they are needed, reducing corrugated consumption and box and carton storage costs.  Shipping costs are also reduced due to the reduced cubic volume.  Product dimensions can be input manually, with a scanner, or through a WMS program.  Individual boxes or cartons can be created in just seconds.  On-demand packaging also eliminates customers’ “too big a box” complaints.

A separate sealing operation can also help improve packing throughput and overall system efficiency.  Sealing machines are available in uniform or random carton sealing configurations and in fully automatic and semi-automatics models.  Uniform machines are purpose designed to seal cartons of one size.  Random sealing machines handle cartons of varying sizes.  A fully automatic machine folds carton flaps before tape is applied.  A semi-automated machine requires that an operator fold the flaps prior to sealing.

As with any of the technology associated with automating the packing operation, the choice of equipment depends entirely upon the goals of the distribution center business plan.  Remember that one of the objectives in automating the packing operation is to pay off the investment in automated order picking technology.

Intelligent pack station design helps justify the investment in automated storage and retrieval systems.  Use intelligent routing, through WMS software, to optimize pack station operation.  Design some pack stations for 80% of packing needs and build other stations for unique needs such as weigh check, fragile items, one line orders and credit checks.

When considering automated pack station equipment, use the following guidelines:

  • Document and discuss specific automation requirements
  • Involve operators and technicians in the discussion
  • Determine labor, space, throughput and other critical requirements, such as sustainability
  • Conduct risk assessments
  • Consider flexibility for business growth

Using the right pack station automation can result in a very fast ROI based on reductions in labor, space, shipping, re-shipping and material costs.

Integrated Systems Design – ISD designs and implements highly efficient warehouse and distribution center order picking, packing and shipping systems. The DREAM Performance Guarantee program helps organizations lock in key metrics and mitigate improvement and automation risk.  Call ISD for a free labor, space and throughput survey. 855-ISD-TODAY or email: