Conveyor Systems for Operations Pushed to Their Limits

Debra Schug, Contributing Writer

With the increase in consumer demand and e-commerce activities, orders are up, and more product is flowing through distribution and fulfillment facilities than ever before. To get a sense of how much e-commerce is growing, Adobe Analytics, which measures transactions from 80 of the top 100 U.S. online retailers, reported that online sales for Black Friday 2018 jumped more than 23% from 2017, and 2018 Cyber Monday topped online revenue by over 19%.

Growth can be a good problem to have, if it’s managed well. However, if a system is showing signs of distress, the workplace is disorganized, and disgruntled employees aren’t able to keep up with the growing amount of packages—costly mistakes might be happening that could drive customers away.

Many growing material handling operations are looking to conveyors to handle larger volumes of materials in an efficient way. In fact, a recent report published by market research firm Markets and Markets predicts the conveyor system market will grow 4.33% to reach $9.9 billion by 2025. But navigating through the extensive conveyor solutions can be overwhelming, so knowing how to choose the right type for your business is the first step towards greater efficiency.

Conveyors Throughout the Facility

Before we can talk about conveyor solutions, it is helpful to understand where and how product flows through a facility. Distribution operations typically begin in the receiving area, where product enters the facility from outside deliveries via trucks.

Once received, product is then moved to a sorting area and different materials are sent to various parts of the building, such as the order fulfillment area. Some products might be “cross docked” or sent directly to the shipping area, usually as full cases destined for retailers. Through using conveyors in this type of setup, the flow of products can be automated and create a continuous stream of materials.

“Conveyors provide continuous fluid flow of product compared to many other methods of handling products; therefore, the overall rate of getting products through a facility is increased,” said Boyce Bonham, Chief Engineer for Hytrol Conveyor Co., Inc.

By automating the flow of products, efficiency is increased by reducing the amount of labor necessary for the same amount of throughput. The burden of moving and lifting materials on employees is eased by conveyors, and the time from order to shipment is shortened.

Plus, the accuracy is boosted due to the elimination of human error. Mistakes, such as accidentally delivering an item to a destination too early or too late or even to the wrong address, can be mitigated by automation, said Andrew Hartline, Sales Manager for Dynamic Conveyor.

“It also reduces the wait time between the next milestones along the process,” he said. “If the conveyance of the material is automated, it facilitates the ability for the work needed to be done to be completed in parallel with the object in motion, which can greatly increase your speed to market.”

Additionally, data provided by automated systems can pinpoint where exactly the product is in a facility at any given time. This insight into the plant floor can not only improve performance, but also allow better predictions of shipment and fulfillment times.

“The automation process provides ‘real-time data’ for everything from inventory location, manufacturing demands and forecasting, inventory relief, improved delivery capabilities and customer satisfaction,” said Les Paul, Managing Director of conveyors for Fast Global Solutions and WASP Conveyor. “This ability becomes the real-time knowledge of all functions going on with automation.”

Different Conveyor Solutions

One of the benefits of conveyors is that they are suitable for almost any warehouse or facility, including those that manufacture, package or consolidate packages for redistribution.

“The size and amount of automation of the conveyor or conveyor system will change based on type of facility, rate of output and size,” said Bonham.

When considering investing in conveyors, experts say to first take a good look at your facility and what goals you are trying to reach. Bonham said businesses should consider the rate at which products need to be moved during the hours of operation. Also, any future growth plans for the facility should also be factored into the conveyor decision.

Hartline said conveyors should be evaluated by two factors: ease of modifying the systems and ease of maintenance. There is a shortage of skilled labor; therefore, it is hard to adequately maintain equipment, which is making it harder on plant operations. Difficult and complex conveyors might not be well-maintained, ultimately leading to downtime.

“Line downtime can cost manufactures and packagers thousands of dollars an hour,” said Hartline.  “These factors require today’s solutions to be easily maintained even by a very novice individual.”

In addition, the flexibility of conveyor systems is also becoming more important, as product lifecycles are becoming shorter, and their packaging is constantly changing.

“In order to ensure a sustainable business, manufacturers and packagers need solutions that are capable of being used in a multitude of applications,” Hartline continued.

How E-commerce is Changing the Game

As touched on previously, e-commerce is taking the material handling industry by storm and stretching the limits of many businesses. Hytrol’s Bonham said e-commerce has affected conveyor systems as well.

“The size of packages being handled by the conveyor system has become smaller, rates have become higher and the type of package being conveyed has become more diverse,” he said. “In the past, products were typically corrugate cartons, while e-commerce packages range from corrugate boxes to polybags, to Jiffy packs and even blister packs.”

Now e-commerce has put more focus on transition points and guide rails used in conveying systems. Also, sensors on conveyors are helping move the high variety of packages being used in the e-commerce world.

“E-commerce has driven the need for high-speed, sophisticated and automated conveying solutions capable of flipping, orienting, transferring and stacking a vast array of packages with one type of conveying solution,” said Hartline. “These conveyors need to be equipped with sensors and other devices to give them the ability to automatically be able to elevate, descend, retract and extend, as well as report back their location and efficiency to a central hub that is constantly monitoring them.”

Also, as businesses reach their limits in terms of speed of delivery, cutting costs in other places will become an area of increased importance. For instance, lowering utility usage is already being looked at in terms of employing energy-efficient motors and reducing conveyors’ power use by double-digit percentages.

“More and more conveyor systems are utilizing decentralized drive systems in order to benefit from energy reduction and improved ability to adjust rate capability throughout peak and off-peak cycles of business,” said Bonham.

And, as in other areas of the material handling industry, software to collect more data from operations, equipment and business cycles is also becoming increasingly important in conveyor systems.

“[Businesses are] utilizing this information to make informative decisions on speeds the conveyor needs to run at any given time and what preventative maintenance programs need to be implemented,” Bonham said.

This need for speed and data insight will likely continue to grow as e-commerce puts more pressure on the industry in general, resulting in more productive and efficient operations as a whole.  WMHS