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Conveyors: Moving at the Speed of Light

The conveyors of today and tomorrow are fast and efficient.

Contributed by: Conveyors & Sortation Systems (CSS) Industry Group

Traditional conveyor surfaces like this one will be replaced by surfaces covered with small, activated metal balls managed by smart controls.

In the material handling world, you would be hard-pressed to find a niche that has not felt the profound effects of the pandemic. From the way distribution centers manage operations to turnaround times, to the equipment involved, today’s operations look different than pre-2020. In many aspects, that’s both presented more challenges and more opportunities for businesses.

“COVID changed everything,” said Dan Barrera, Segment Manager at Carter Intralogistics. “It used to be that ecommerce customers were content waiting for 48 hours or more for package delivery. Now, they expect to see their orders delivered in under 24 hours.”

That’s had a radical impact on material handling operations, and conveyors play one of the biggest roles in allowing companies to keep up with customer demands.

“Conveyors need to be faster, more flexible, more mobile and require less maintenance,” said Barrera. “Conveyors have had to change to keep up.”

Proving Efficient

In order for your conveyors to keep pace with today’s demands, DC managers have had to look for flexible, on-the-go solutions.

“With COVID and the need for social distancing, companies have needed the ability to change configurations on the fly,” said Barrera. “We’ve been selling many flexible, mobile conveyors that allow for quick changes without interrupting the pace of operations.”

Also important in today’s quick-fire environment is the ability to remain operational and efficient. This means conveyors coupled with predictive maintenance.

“Say your motor is overheating and consuming too much energy,” said Barrera. “You can learn this in advance and be proactive rather than reactive. You can plan to shut down your equipment for maintenance at an off-peak time.”

Connecting conveyors to the cloud for both predictive maintenance and for determining bottlenecks and other inefficiencies is also essential today.

“You can compare one shift to another, for instance, and figure out where the inefficiencies lie,” Barrera said. “Then you can correct them, keeping your capacity and speed where it needs to be.”

Piggy backing on those efficiencies are automated vehicles like AGVs and AMRs, which can work in support of conveyors, taking up less space on the DC floor.

“Nothing is going to replace conveyors,” said Barrera, “but engineers can now create flexible, mobile designs backed up with new technology.”

Looking Ahead

Robert Turner, Systems Engineer, Parcel, at Vanderlande Industries, predicts that conveyors are going to become smarter and more functional.

While the pandemic brought the future to conveyors in quick fashion, smart companies are also keeping an eye on what’s to come. Robert Turner, Systems Engineer, Parcel, at Vanderlande Industries, says the future of conveyors is going to look even more sophisticated.

“Conveyors are only going to become smarter and more functional,” he said.

Turner sees conveyors changing from equipment that can transport items from point A to point B, into equipment that can also go to point C, adding in higher functionality. For instance, tomorrow’s conveyors might also manage sortation, alignment, consolidation and more.

“It might even include palletizing,” Turner said. “Conveyors will become a more creative solution without having to add on secondary or tertiary pieces of equipment.”

The conveyors themselves, rather than resembling the traditional, flat belt or rollers, for instance, will present as a surface covered with dozens of small, activated metal balls managed by smart controls. “A package will move onto the ball-covered table and roll or rotate 360 degrees, for instance, controlling the direction the parcel needs to go,” Turner explained.

All of the magic occurs when the controls determine which direction the balls roll, sending packages that way.

“So, if you have a parcel on the conveyor and another is headed that way, too, the balls might move one parcel to the left to make room,” Turner explained. “In this way, the conveyors are sorting as well as transporting.”

Right now, roller ball beds like this are still in the pre-adoption phases, says Turner.

“It’s largely in development, but different companies will have different flavors of the technology,” he said. “Ultimately it will become commoditized.”

Turner says that at the moment, there still isn’t a clearly defined business case for these futuristic conveyors. You won’t find them at UPS or FedEx today, for instance. But as with the fast-paced change that kicked into gear in early 2020, it’s a good bet that the conveyors of the future are closer than you think. WMHS

Conveyors & Sortation Systems (CSS) Industry Group is advancing the material handling industry through the optimal use of conveyors and sortation systems for the benefit of our members and their end users. https://www.mhi.org/conv

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