How Automated Shelving Systems Work

Automated shelving solutions provide distribution centers and warehouses with a way to optimize storage and picking of stock by handling these tasks automatically. Rather than have workers move to a position to retrieve items, automated shelving moves items to the worker. The system catalogs and tracks items so that workers simply need to specify the product, part, or storage position they want to have it delivered to them.

Automated shelving systems store items either in horizontal or vertical carousels or on trays managed by a vertical-lift system. Additionally, some systems can incorporate light-directed picking and optimized slotting to enhance productivity and achieve maximum throughput.

Automated Shelving Systems


The key ingredient to the success of this storage solution is the automation that goes into them. Using computers to track the position of an item in storage, automated shelving drastically reduces picking errors by delivering exactly the right item requested.

When storing items, an operator catalogs each item and its position in the system. Workers can then use information such as an item’s cell location, bin number, or part number to retrieve an item. Using the data provided by the operator, the system also plots the quickest set of actions it must perform when a worker requests multiple items in a batch.


Carousel-based automated shelving is one of the most common automated shelving systems for sale online. These use a series of drawers or trays mounted in a freely revolving horizontal or vertical chain of shelves. The chain of shelves can move forward or backward through its inventory of items to move a specific shelf to the right location for ergonomic picking.

Because shelves in a carousel are often spaced at specific heights or widths, carousels have a set limit to the sizes of items they can support. As a result, this shelving solution is more often only used to store smaller parts and items.

Vertical Lifts

Automated storage systems that use trays in conjunction with vertical lifts provide a further level of usability by offering the ability to store items of varying heights. Vertical lift systems store items on trays that an elevator lifts to a rack for storage. The racks allow for variation of the height between each tray so that the system only uses as much space as the items on each tray require.

To determine the appropriate height between each tray, vertical lift modules use a height sensor to measure the items on a tray. It then determines the best position to place that tray on the rack to keep storage as compressed as possible.

Productivity Optimizations

In high-throughput settings, automated shelving systems can utilize other technologies to further reduce picking errors and enhance productivity. To direct workers to the correct drawer in a carousel or area on a tray, an automated shelf might use lights or indicators to mark the appropriate position. Workers can then pick the right item at a glance without having to search the entire tray or shelf or read the labels of each bin.

Some systems can also use data gathered as workers use the system to generate reports to help operators determine the best position for an item. These slotting optimizations lump the most commonly requested items on the same trays or shelves so that the system can deliver multiple items at once for batch requests.


The conveniences and optimizations automated shelving systems provide make them a great choice for distribution and fulfillment centers with an eye to the future. Understanding how they work can help you determine how best to incorporate these systems into your company’s workflow.