What’s new in conveyor technology

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

If you haven’t purchased a new conveyor system in the last five years or so, you might think the book was closed long ago on conveyor technology. After all, how tough can it be to power some rollers and move a carton from here to there, right?

If you’re talking about a basic roller conveyor in a small factory or distribution center, maybe that’s true. But once you get beyond the basics, the next generation of conveyor systems and controls is addressing the needs and concerns of today’s increasingly complex and automated manufacturing and distribution environments. Several factors are at work, say industry experts, who cite the need by end users to handle more throughput with less equipment and a growing emphasis on energy savings and sustainability. But those aren’t the only factors.

“The incremental growth of Internet sales is pushing companies to handle more individual items than cartons and pallets, and we’re seeing changes in packaging,” says Phil Kaffenberger, vice president of product development for HK Systems (262-860-7000, http://www.hksystems.com)). “Both of those are impacting the way companies operate their conveyors.”

In addition to changes in products and packaging, order fulfillment best practices, like the increasing use of crossdocking, automated storage and retrieval systems (AS/RS) and the growing demand for mixed SKU pallets are also shaping the next generation of conveyor technology, says Ken Ruehrdanz, distribution and warehousing market manager for Dematic (877-725-7500, http://www.dematic.com)). So is the rapid change of business. “For businesses to accommodate changes in market conditions, volumes or other unforeseen conditions, logistics operations need to adjust,” Ruehrdanz says. “That means all the material flow systems, including conveyor technology, must adjust accordingly.”

Here are some of the most common trends identified by some of the leading providers of conveyor equipment, systems and controls that are driving the conveyor market today.

Conveyor modernization: A well-designed, well-built conveyor system has an operational life expectancy of 15 or 20 years. During that time, however, your business processes and materials handling systems are likely to change. Not to worry, says Ruehrdanz. “There are a number of options that can modernize and extend a conveyor system’s life.” First, worn rollers that produce excess noise or damage side frames can be replaced with new rollers. Mechanical sensor rollers can be replaced with electronic sensing that allows lighter weight cartons to convey and improve carton control. Line shaft conveyors can be upgraded to motor driven rollers (more on this later) that offer sleep modes, accumulation modes, variable speed control and improved carton flow.  Finally, traditional pulley motor assemblies can be replaced with a motorized pulley that will reduce energy usage and sound levels and maintenance costs.

Do more from less: “Increasingly, our customers tell us they want to do more with less,” says Kevin Klueber, associate product manager for Intelligrated (877-315-3400, http://www.intelligrated.com)). “That means our conveyors need to be more versatile.” One way to more with less is to simply go faster, which has led to conveyor speeds of 700 to 750 feet per minute.

Another approach is to use software, sensors and electronics to close the gap between products on the conveyor and to dynamically control the speed of the conveyor system to match the throughput required for a shift. Reducing the gap between products allows an end user to move more cartons at the same speed. And dynamically controlling the speed allows you to minimize energy consumption and wear and tear on the system.

“You can now input your throughput for the day, and the system will calculate the speed you need to run to match that throughput,” says Klueber. “That allows you to better utilize your space, and it reduces maintenance since you’re not running the system at full speed all the time.” Smarter controls combined with new roller and belting systems is allowing end users to conveyor smaller cartons, envelopes and poly bags that previously didn’t work on roller conveyor. “The list of non-conveyables is shrinking,” Klueber says.

Getting smarter with software: The real strides in conveyor technology today are not mechanical, an area where improvements are incremental. They’re being made in the electronics and software that control the systems, says says Del Deur, director of product development for carton and case conveyor for TGW-Ermanco (231-798-4547, http://www.tgw-ermanco.com)). That’s resulting not just in better performance, but also better monitoring and reporting. “One area we’re focusing on is dashboards that will tell you what’s going on in various pick modules, or what kind of throughput you’re getting during the shift compared to where you need to be to hit your numbers,” says Deur. “At another level, we’re using camera-based systems in some of our conveyors to capture what’s going on.” If a system jams, Deur adds, an operator can review the tape to diagnose what happened to cause the jam and then take corrective actions to prevent it in the future.

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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