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Reader survey: Conveyor technology

Conveyors are the most used form of automation in today’s plants and distribution centers. Modern readers told us how they’re putting the technology to work.
By Bob Trebilcock, Executive Editor
February 01, 2011

When it comes to automated materials handling equipment, end users are most likely to turn to conveyor to speed up the flow of product in their plants, warehouses and distribution centers. Take crossdocking, for instance. Without conveyor, it’s hard to imagine how else to get thousands of cartons from the receiving dock to the shipping dock in 10 minutes or less. It’s not uncommon to have several miles of conveyor in the largest retail distribution centers. 

As the materials handling industry emerges from a recession and looks to grow again, how are Modern readers planning to deploy conveyor technologies in the future and what are their purchase plans? To find out, we surveyed e-mail subscribers of Modern as well as a sample of recipients of our e-newsletters. We received answers from 269 qualified respondents, defined as a reader who buys or uses conveyor for their company. The respondents represented a range of companies, both large and small, with 26% reporting revenues of more than $500 million, 20% reporting revenues of more than $100 million and the remainder under $100 million.

Respondents also represent a mix of manufacturers, distributors and warehouses associated with manufacturing. The breakdown is:
• 62% of those planning to purchase new conveyor will use it in a manufacturing plant,
• 40% will use it in a distribution center, and
• 30% will use it in a warehouse.

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Here are the most important results.

From belt to towline
From belt to towline conveyors, the conveyor industry offers a diverse mix of products, and Modern’s readers employ them all (see chart for complete listing).
• 80% are using belt conveyor.
• 63% are using roller conveyor.
• 62% are using accumulation conveyor.
• 53% are using motor-driven roller conveyor.
• 47% are using chain conveyor.

While fewer readers have installed sortation systems, the mix among those who have is fairly evenly divided among the different speed offerings, measured in cartons per minute (cpm).
• 26% are using medium speed sortation (50 to 150 cpm).
• 24% are using high speed sortation (150 cpm and up).
• 20% are using slow speed sortation (up to 50 cpm).

When it comes to future conveyor purchases, the picture remains much the same for the next 18 months:
• 60% plan to purchase belt conveyor.
• 41% plan to purchase motor-driven roller conveyor. 
• 40% plan to purchase roller conveyor. 
• 39% plan to purchase accumulation conveyor. 
• 30% plan to purchase chain conveyor. 

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Planning for the future
Caution seems to be the watchword when it comes to future investments in conveyor and sortation systems. With the economy beginning to grow again, a segment of Modern’s readers is planning to spend more (23%) or the same (30%) on conveyor over the next 18 months than they spent in the last 12 months. Another 22% are taking a wait-and-see attitude before planning any future investments.

And, those investments may be modest. Sixty-one percent report that they will spend $100,000 or less including 37% who say they will spend less than $50,000 in 2011; only 14% expect to spend more than $1 million on conveyor technologies over the next 18 months. The median increase for those expecting to spend more is 20% over their 2010 budgets.

On a more positive note, only 15% report that their overall materials handling budgets have been cut for 2011 and only 8% say they will be spending less in 2011 than in 2010.

That said, end users appear to be looking for growth in 2011, with 29% reporting that their conveyor purchases are part of a larger integrated system; meanwhile, 39% say they are purchasing the equipment for a new facility and 61% say their purchase is part of an expansion project.

The majority of those purchases come directly from a conveyor manufacturer (54%) or conveyor distributor (39%).

The same holds true when it comes to replacement or spare parts, with 46% purchasing directly from a manufacturer or a manufacturer’s Web site (25%), while 38% purchase from their distributor or use their distributor’s Web site (16%).

Automated materials handling systems are mission critical. If a lift truck breaks down, another lift truck can pick up the slack. If a conveyor goes down, a facility may be down until that conveyor is back up and running.

It comes as no surprise then that reliability was considered “very important” (72%) or “important” (25%) by more readers than any other attribute. The reputation of the supplier was a distant second, ranked as very important by just 39% of respondents. Price was also ranked as very important by 39% of respondents.

Conveyor users also appear to stick with the tried and true: Just 19% of our readers ranked leading edge technology as a very important factor in their buying decision, while 31% ranked it as relatively unimportant.

When it comes to features, Modern’s readers value individually powered zones (57%); design flexibility (55%); low energy/power consumption (53%); low noise emission (48%); and intelligent conveying features (32%) in their systems.

Up and running
Conveyor manufacturers, like lift truck providers, have been developing new maintenance programs for their customers. Still, Modern’s readers are mostly taking care of business when it comes to keeping their conveyor systems up and running.
• 81% use their own crew for maintenance.
• 8% have a service contract with an OEM/supplier.
• 5% have a service contract with a third party.

Only 10% reported that they are considering outsourcing the repair and maintenance of their conveyor equipment.

Sustainability in the balance
Sustainability is one of the hottest topics in business today, and, depending on the organization, one of the most controversial. When it comes to green conveyor technologies, Modern’s readers seem to reflect those divisions.

Only 3% report that energy efficiency is of little importance as it relates to their conveyor systems, while 40% report that it is somewhat important; 34% say it is very important; and 16% say it is extremely important.

At the same time, only handful of companies have received tax credits for such an installation:
• 52% report that they plan to investigate tax incentives for energy-efficient systems.
• 38% say they have no plans to investigate tax incentives for energy efficiency.
• 10% say they have already done so.

About the Author

Bob Trebilcock
Executive Editor

Bob Trebilcock, executive editor, has covered materials handling, technology and supply chain topics for Modern Materials Handling since 1984. More recently, Trebilcock became editorial director of Supply Chain Management Review. A graduate of Bowling Green State University, Trebilcock lives in Keene, NH. He can be reached at 603-357-0484.


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