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In A Global Economy, Keeping Conveyors Running Is Key

By: Maureen Paraventi, Editor

Remember way back in 2012, when we’d order something online and be glad to get it – on average – in five or six days?1 The continuing acceleration of e-commerce delivery systems has habituated consumers to receiving their packages much more quickly than that. In 2019 the average wait for purchases ordered online was two-to-three days, according to one estimate.2 Now, packages may be delivered the day after or even on the same day an order was placed.

What was formerly a unique selling point (USP) on the part of many companies is now a standard operating procedure (SOP) across a variety of industries. Consumers have come to expect a speedy delivery, and not getting one may cause them to take their e-business elsewhere.

A key ingredient in making all that almost-instant gratification possible is, of course, the conveyor. The increasing globalization of the economy and the accompanying rise in e-commerce – especially during the pandemic, when many people are reluctant to go into brick-and-mortar stores to do their shopping – have helped fuel growth in an already-robust conveyor industry. Valued at $7.73 billion in 2019, the market for these vital material handling systems is expected to reach $10.7 billion by 2025.

While Henry Ford often gets the credit for introducing conveyor belts to the world by implementing a conveyor belt assembly line in 1913 at a Ford Motor Company auto factory in Michigan, the first conveyor system may actually have been in use as early as 1795. Although primitive, those early versions – which used hand cranks and pullies to run leather belts over wooden beds – succeeded in moving massive loads of coal and ore. The innovators who came up with them would likely not recognize modern conveyors.

Twentieth-century improvements in conveyor systems included the half-twist, which made belts last longer by distributing wear more evenly and the development of a plastic, modular conveyor belt. Emerging trends in conveyor technology include the reduction of workplace noise through the use of energy-efficient powered rollers; the use of distributed autonomous controls to lower costs associated with central processors; greater automation with robotics and environmentally-friendly design changes such as energy-efficient motors, motor-driven rollers and automatic sleep controls.

Used in the packaging, food processing, pharmaceutical, chemical, automotive, agricultural, aerospace and
electronic industries, among others, conveyors will continue to evolve and be a major player in material handling. It is important that conveyors function as needed, and for that to happen, companies must be able to get conveyor parts quickly and reliably. Any significant downtime in today’s high-pressure economic environment can be costly.

The experiences of two companies in the accompanying case study illustrate the potential perils of parts-related delays, and point to one solution – one which will require a shift in thinking on the part of companies accustomed to dealing with overseas suppliers. In many cases, a domestic supplier can offer a faster turnaround on parts, thereby avoiding stoppages and keeping conveyors operating at full-speed. WMHS

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