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What’s new in conveyor technology

Think there's nothing new about conveyor technology? Think again.
By Bob Trebilcock, Executive Editor
February 01, 2010

Bring on the belts: The increase in piece picking along with changes in packaging are resulting in an increase in alternatives to roller conveyors. “One of the changes you’re seeing is a move from corrugated to blister packs,” says HK Systems’ Kaffenberger. “And with single line orders, we’re handling smaller and smaller packages.” That’s resulting in an increase in belt and plastic top chain conveyors that can accommodate small packaging. “We’re also seeing a higher use of belted motor driven conveyors to accommodate accumulation in piece picking operations,” says Kaffenberger.

Green conveying: A tough economy has put a premium on cost containment and an increasing interest in sustainability. Both are creating demand for motor driven roller conveyor (MDR). In these conveyors, each roller is powered by an energy-saving, 24-volt motor inside the roller. “The post office has seen a 60% energy savings in parcel-handling applications, and we have seen savings of up to 90% in some commercial applications,” says Rich Kosik, senior vice president for Itoh Denki USA (888-310-8811, http://www.itohdenki.com)). Those savings come in part from the low voltage motors. But it’s also because MDR conveyors can run on demand, operating only when product is on the conveyor. Users can also vary the speed of the conveyors, operating at 300 feet per minute on a busy day or 100 feet per minute on slower days.

What’s more, MDR providers are developing smart rollers that can monitor the operation of the system for predictive maintenance purposes. “We have developed a smart roller with an embedded memory chip that can keep track of the hours of operation and currents,” says John Mosher, solution development manager for Holjeron (971-224-1600, http://www.holjeron.com)). “If a roller is using too much current, it might mean that it’s the wrong size roller for that application. But it might also mean that the roller is beginning to fail.”

The ergonomic conveyor: Most conveyors are used in place of warehouse personnel. But on the receiving and shipping docks, the loading and unloading zones, conveyors that extend into trailers and shipping containers interface with humans. “In those areas, we are where the rubber hits the road,” says Mark Rehder, general manager and vice president for Caljan Rite-Hite (303-321-3600, http://www.caljanritehiteus.com)). “On the docks, ergonomics and safety are as important as throughput speeds.” Those concerns are being addressed in several ways, including guarding, labeling and enclosed designs that minimize the number of pinch points where a finger or garment might get caught in the conveyor. It’s also reflected in the ability to adjust the conveyor height to place the parcel at an ergonomic location for the operator at the dock. “You’ll now see conveyors using hydraulic elevation control and articulated belt systems that allow any individual to put the conveyor at the right height,” says Rehder. In addition, conveyor providers are also combining conveyors with vacuum-assist lifting devices that can lift bags, cartons and boxes from a trailer floor or pallet. “All the operator has to do is guide the parcel onto the conveyor,” says Rehder.

What goes up: Most people use conveyor for horizontal travel. Vertical reciprocating conveyors (VRCs) are used to transport parts, products, subassemblies and work-in-process from one level of a facility to another. “VRCs are a safe and efficient method of getting material from one elevation to another elevation,” says Todd Canham, lift product manager for Wildeck (800-325-6939, http://www.wildeck.com)). “They allow companies to make better use of their floor space by using the space overhead.” An electronics manufacturer, for instance, uses a VRC to transport materials from the manufacturing floor to a testing facility and then back to the ground level to a packing station. “It’s an easy way to move material while reducing lift truck traffic,” says Canham. A new generation of VRCs that use direct-acting lift technologies and eliminate cables and sprockets provides simple and reliable vertical lifting for low usage situations.

Modular conveyors come into their own: End users are increasingly looking for flexibility from automated materials handling equipment, including conveyor systems. That has led to the development of modular conveyors that can be easily reconfigured if needs change. “With a modular conveyor, you can start out with a flat module but later add an incline or expand the length of the conveyor,” says Jill Batka, general manager for Dynamic Conveyor (800-640-6850, http://www.dynamicconveyor.com)). “The modules are pieced together with screws and braces that easily snap together.” These systems are ideal for light-to-medium applications, with weights of 100 pounds or less and speeds of 60 feet per minute or less. “These types of solutions are especially suited to manufacturing lines, since manufacturers are often reconfiguring their facilities to accommodate new products and processes,” says Batka.

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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