Distribution centers, processors and warehouses must meet increasingly stringent requirements to keep up with the high demand and radically changing world of intralogistics – the process of automating, optimizing and managing the transfer of information and goods within their facilities. Several types of products must be handled: Parcels and packaged goods come in all shapes, sizes and materials, which challenges material handling professionals to find one-size-fits-all equipment to ensure that all these items are handled properly.
Getting products to customers quickly and inexpensively is no longer the only concern; the management of returns plays a decisive role in competitive positioning and business success in the market. With the globalization of the economy, the international flow of goods is also increasing at an accelerated pace. Because of the vast number of orders and inflexible delivery schedules, business processes and supply chains are becoming increasingly complex.
At the same time, competitive pressure between national economies and individual market players is growing, encouraging management to consider outsourcing models and investing in process automation. To maintain and increase market position in the face of rising competition, logistic and processing industry leaders must implement the most efficient, customizable and cost-effective processes at distribution centers, warehouses and other facilities.
The supporting role
With the many challenges facing warehouse and distribution centers, operators should consider casting state-of-the-art conveyor systems in a vital supporting role to remain competitive, lower costs and implement automation. Indeed, the U.S. conveyor systems market continues to thrive because of industrial development, the need to reduce manufacturing expenses and the growing focus on optimizing production processes. More original equipment manufacturers are outsourcing the manufacturing of conveyor equipment to specialists to maximize inventory, material management, staffing and machine use to focus on their own product lines.
A recent report projects that the global conveyor systems market will grow to $7.6 billion by 2022, creating a need to adopt more advanced systems that can improve production efficiency, cut costs and be customized to industry requirements.1 These systems must also be able to integrate with the latest intelligent software solutions to enable leveraging Internet of Things (IoT) capabilities for further efficiencies.
Six basics for optimal performance
The five basic considerations that determine a conveyor system’s specifications include:
- Maximum throughput per time unit
- Geometry of the material to be transported
- Weight and material of the transported product
- Control requirements
- Environmental conditions
Once these guidelines are established, operators should seek out these six qualities of a conveyor system to help streamline processes and deliver award-worthy performance.
1. Zero pressure
Conventional conveyor systems, which have permanent active drives, generate accumulation pressure. This pressure can cause products to collide in transit, potentially damaging the products. To avoid this setback, system integrators have actively begun designing zero-pressure conveyor systems to replace old systems that use electropneumatic controls that have individual accumulation sections.
Because the sections control the movement on a case-by-case basis, operators who have zero-pressure systems have considerably lowered waste costs from goods damaged by impact loading or accumulated pressure. With the high number of orders and returns, distribution centers simply cannot afford risking products mishandled in transit and must minimize the costs associated with handling waste. The system can also be used in buffer segments to guarantee an optimum filling ratio of the transport zone or to separate transport materials. Additionally, a demand-driven system significantly lowers noise levels, which provides a better working environment for operators and other personnel.
2. Decentralized solutions
Conventional conveyor sections are powered by gear motors with 400 to 480 volts. These motors drive long flat belts that usually operate 24 hours per day, regardless of how many goods are being transported. A respective conveyor zone is switched on and off using pneumatic or electric control units. Unlike traditional conveyor systems in which central drive motors provide the power for the entire line, solutions that are decentralized can be adapted to an individual shipment’s requirements.
Having decentralized drives in each individual conveyor zone ensures that a conveyor will only move if goods are present. The ability to switch zones on and off independent of each other enables more efficient system use and prevents the wear caused by unnecessary machinery operation, which can increase the system’s life cycle. Decentralized drives can also increase energy savings – facilities that have installed this technology have reported reduced power consumption of up to 50 percent.
Often, traditional conveyor systems are perceived as inflexible and unable to meet changing market conditions. A survey of retailers, manufacturers, wholesalers and third-party logistics firms conducted by Tompkins Supply Chain Consortium found that companies had, on average, nearly three distribution operations with systems that were more than 15 years old.2 Ultimately, end users must quickly react to short-term changes in the order structures and the range of products.
Continuous mass processing of identical goods is no longer the industry standard; it has been replaced by shorter order cycles with varying packaging size and weight changes. In fact, 76 percent of Interroll customers stated that the typical throughput of material handling systems will continue to increase. The solution must also be incorporated easily into tomorrow’s changing IT environments or Industry 4.0.
Just as important as the solution’s range of applications is the modularity of the platform, which – much like LEGO blocks – can be flexibly configured and expanded using standard components (see Image 1). This makes installation and maintenance easier, provides shorter delivery times and gives system integrators key benefits as early as the planning phase. As a result, modular systems with largely standardized components and sections that can be moved, reconfigured, updated and combined interchangeably are becomingly increasingly appealing.
When order structures, throughput requirements or product mix suddenly shifts, the modular design of an entire conveyor system must be reevaluated. Rollers that are easily removable, combined with conveyor modules that offer versatility, enable seamless system extensions and reconfigurations without significant structural changes. This ensures scalability for future growth and that the investment is truly future-proof.
5. Smart solutions
An Industry 4.0 study conducted by global management consulting firm McKinsey & Company, reported only 30 percent of technology suppliers and 16 percent of manufacturers have an overall Industry 4.0 strategy in place, and just 24 percent have assigned clear responsibilities to implement it.3 As IoT increasingly becomes a daily reality, the complexity of logistics will expand. Based on the internet, mobile communications and microcomputers, embedded cyber-physical systems are created and grow more intelligent every day. They will be at the heart of the smart factory in which machines, warehousing systems and operating functions are interconnected and exchange information locally and globally. Choosing a conveyor system outfitted with the latest and most advanced technology will help make the transition to smart factories easier for companies. Installing conveyors containing technology such as certified network interface cards can allow the user to configure sensor and drive properties, such as speed, direction of rotation, acceleration and braking ramps, using either a web user interface or the programmable logic controller’s programming software.
6. Adaptable accessories
Selecting the proper accessories is key to maximizing conveyor system functionality. A multitude of options (motors, rollers, controls, belts and chains) are available to enhance conveyors, allowing operators to select components that enable goods to be conveyed in every direction and provide better acceleration and deceleration.
For example, gravity roller conveyors are often responsible for handling the final stage of goods moving through sorting systems.
Many gravity conveyors are sold without devices that regulate speed, which can lead to damaged goods. By installing a speed controller, operators have precise control over the speed at which packages of differing weights travel.
As the manufacturing and processing sectors continue their upward trajectories, more warehouses and other facilities are embracing automation to optimize production processes and meet demands. Globalization of the world economy, shorter innovation cycles and a high level of market transparency have turned logistics into a pivotal factor for success. To maximize the benefits of automation, facility operators must select a conveyor system that lowers costs by offering a smart, energy-efficient solution that requires minimal maintenance. The most effective conveyor system will serve as a supporting player in a facility’s production, helping it prepare for the next wave of innovation in intralogistics.
- “Conveyor Systems Market Overview.” Allied Market Research, http://alliedmarketresearch.com
- “Aging Material Handling Equipment Puts Your Distribution/Fulfillment Center at Risk,” Tompkins International, http://tompkinsinc.com
- “Getting the most out of Industry 4.0.,” McKinsey & Company, http://mckinsey.com
Stephen Cwiak, senior vice president – head of Subsystems at Interroll Group, has developed sophisticated conveyor and sortation systems for leading companies throughout his career. Each system builds on previous experience while introducing the latest technology. As we move into a heightened era of technology-savvy material handling systems, Cwiak continues to find solid solutions that push the boundaries of today’s intralogistics. He may be reached at email@example.com.