Prime Competence has a new concept for postal sorting operations that could be a game-changer for posts and express-parcel carriers alike: sorting without a sorter. Now, with a major post (considered to be one of the world's most automated posts) signed-up to build a proof-of-concept model, it’s time to shed some light on what could be the future for parcel sorting.

The “future for sorting” is a major theme in the work Prime Competence does for clients and in that role we are co-developing concepts with posts and relevant technology partners, researching the potential of emerging technologies and looking how needs and capability can combine in new ways towards strategies that posts can adopt. The fact is, change is desperately overdue in sorting operations where the paradigm of major capital investment in fixed sorting systems and facilities no longer fits the dynamic e-commerce logistics market of today. The traditional “heavy-metal” sorting systems have certainly advanced, however their principle configuration has changed little over the past 30 years, a time perhaps when it was possible to predict that your investment today would still serve you well in 5, 10, 15 years’ time. Those times have gone! Today, can you predict how the postal market will be in even 2, 3 or 4 years’ time?

So what sorting operations would suit the postal market today?

Today, and the future, is all about scalability and flexibility; ensuring that you have an agile operation able to respond to shifting volumes over the short and long term, and importantly not burdening the business with long-term expenditure in areas that no longer fit the business need. Flexibility requires that we consider the role of fixed infrastructure such as traditional sorting systems, building layout, staffing and facilities that lock posts into specific regimented ways of working.

Sorting without sorters

Imagine being able to start a sophisticated sorting operation with a simple concrete floor (it doesn’t have to be concrete) and be operational in perhaps days instead of months or years. The materials handling and movement role previously done by “heavy metal” sorters is now done by an army of worker bees that identify, assess and physically sort the item to its dispatch location. The “worker bee is a good paradigm for this strategy as so-called “swarming algorithms” are a key part of the success of the system.

A perfect-storm of technologies

“Swarming algorithms” (software that enables vehicles to co-operate in close proximity to each other without collision) is just one of the technologies that is being developed by the consortium towards making the Prime Competence autonomous sorting concept a reality. Other significant factors include hardware such as ground and air-based UxVs (Unmanned Vehicles), navigation and mapping technology, advanced sorting software, scalable cloud-based software platforms, reliable wide-area data communications, and battery technology. The capability in all these areas has developed to a point that Prime Competence is poised to prove its autonomous sorting concept as the first major alternative to traditional sorting technology in more than 30 years.

Autonomous Sorting: open and flexible

A founding principle of the autonomous sorting concept is that it should be low cost to start-up and operate compared to traditional “heavy metal” sorters, meaning no barriers to adoption by posts seeking to integrate a more scalable and flexible sorting strategy. Flexibility also means adopting a design approach that guarantees open development (non-proprietary) and interoperability, especially independence between hardware and software. There are also many hybrid opportunities that utilize traditional sorting technology investments in combination with the new techniques.

Prime Competence has established a consortium to act as a hub for posts, logistics companies and technology partners to explore, test and develop relevant technologies for the autonomous sorting program and bring the proof of concept to market. Posts interested in pursuing their own pilot program are invited to contact our program manager Mr. Bernd van Dijk, as are any solution providers who consider they have interesting technology to share with the consortium.