Robot ‘cars’ provide instantly scalable order picking

Pan Demetrakakes

April 30, 2018

5 Min Read
Robot ‘cars’ provide instantly scalable order picking
Automated solutions can help your in-house ecommerce fulfillment operation run more efficiently.

One of the biggest ongoing challenges in consumer goods material handling is how to accommodate the rise of ecommerce. Many product manufacturers are opting to handle fulfillment in house and need to augment their typical pallet-load unitizing operations with automated small-parcel management. Since this is a relatively new area of operations, many plant and packaging engineers are actively seeking options and solutions.

Tompkins Robotics has developed t-Sort, a system that uses small “cars” to pick up parcels from a pick-and-place robot, drive along a track to a spot above an order bin and drop the parcel into the bin by tilting up the bed of the vehicle. Picking and sorting parcels becomes more versatile and requires less capital because it’s done by robotic mini-vehicles that transport and deposit packages into bins.

Tompkins spokesperson Andrea Epstein talks about the advantages of t-Sort for product manufacturers, among others.

According to a Packaging Digest survey, the majority of respondents (65.2%) either partially or fully integrate ecommerce into their core business. Does it surprise you that it’s that high?

Epstein: The overall number of 65.2% that either partial or fully integrate ecommerce does not surprise us. The challenge with this information is the definition of “partially or fully integrate ecommerce into their core business.” 

Staring 10 years ago, companies began recognizing “multi-channel,” which would qualify as partially integrated. Then starting five years ago companies began upgrading their pursuit of “omni-channel,” which represents a higher level of integration. And then two years ago firms began pursuing “uni-channel” (unified channel), which qualifies as fully integrated. The multi-channel approach takes primarily a financial view, the omni-channel takes an inventory view and the uni-channel approach adopts a customer perspective. The question now is, how do retailers view their integration of their channels (multi, omni or uni)?


Do you anticipate that ecommerce fulfillment will be the most common application for t-Sort? What other applications would be possible?

Epstein: Currently, the most popular warehouse applications for t-Sort are store fulfillment for retail applications and in ecommerce fulfillment. However, the market is quickly realizing that the flexibility of the t-Sort system lends itself to being used across a range of applications to include parcel packout and sortation, returns processing, supplemental capacity and back-room sortation, amongst others. T-Sort facilitates the multi-/omni-/uni-channel operations unlike any other system available today. 

Also, t-Sort can effectively handle a much wider range of product types than traditional unit sortation systems, including apparel, beauty aids, health products, pharmaceuticals and other consumer goods. The t-Sort design can accomplish volumes ranging from millions of units a day to a small operation in the backroom of a supercenter or mall anchor store.

In an ecommerce application, would the bins that the products get dumped into represent individual orders? How might they be used in a non-ecommerce application?

Epstein: Yes, but it is important to note that t-Sort provides ultimate flexibility as it makes a complete stop at the destination, and the tilt angle and speed can be completely controlled based on the product being sorted.

T-Sort can divert directly into an outbound carton, as well as a variety of different destinations such as chutes and gravity-roller conveyors for accumulation of orders. Products such as shoes in boxes, apparel and fragile items can all be successfully diverted into a variety of receptacles. Further, diverting directly into outbound parcel bags is in development.

In a typical application, how would the pick-and-place robot be fed? How does it discern among products to place onto the mobile robots?

Epstein: The RightHand Robotics (RHR) pick-and-place robot can interface either directly with goods-to-man (robot) type systems or with cases and totes delivered to it via conveyor or transport robots. RHR uses state-of-the-art vision and intelligence systems to identify each item within the product container to ensure accurate selection of items and induction onto t-Sort.  

In addition to RHR, Tompkins Robotics has partnered with SI Systems, SensorThink, Softeon and Piedmont National. T-Sort can discern all items, placing them correctly for delivery. T-Sort has been patented in North America and Europe.

The Tompkins Warehouse Execution System (TWES), which controls the system, is cloud-based. Does that mean there is no hardware required on-site? What kind of host IT systems would the TWES interface with, and how would it do so?

Epstein: The TWES eases implementation through its quickly configurable design and is highly flexible, with the ability to interface with a variety of host systems. TWES is cloud-based to minimize IT hardware requirements, providing a large number of standard reports and analytics that will assist any operation in maximizing the benefit of the TWES system.

The interface is highly adaptable to allow TWES to integrate into any warehouse management or legacy system while providing real-time control of all the equipment in your operations.

The TWES is the first system designed to capitalize on the Internet of Things (IoT) in the warehouse. TWES can access information from IoT and non-IoT enabled devices, machines and sensors, and other software solutions. This unique interaction with the warehouse’s digital landscape allows TWES to manage operational tasks and material handling automation in an unprecedented fashion, all while providing a seamless view of process, data and performance.

How does the modularity of t-Sort increase the system’s flexibility?

Epstein: Robots, chutes and induction stations can be added modularly at any time with no interruption or downtime, an additional robot can be added in seconds. This unique feature allows the t-Sort system to be expanded on an as-needed basis to meet seasonal spikes, or annually to allow operations to meet year-over-year sales growth. By doing this, users defer the capital investment and fully utilize the asset at all times, unlike a traditional sorter that one buys for their long-term growth plan.

A typical installation can be installed in less than six months.


Production efficiencies, ecommerce challenges, sustainability trends, new bioplastic technologies and more are among the topics on the agenda at the new Packaging Education Hub at EastPack 2018 (June 12-14; NYC). This free educational program will have more than 15 hours of can’t-miss presentations, demonstrations and hands-on activities. Register to attend for free today!

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