Global Processing

Modular conveyor systems – The best kept secret in material handling?

August 16, 2005

Manufacturers in every field are keeping their processes private, if not secret. After all, most processes are in some ways proprietary, comprising a mixture of methods, technologies and operations that ultimately affect a manufacturer''s ability to compete successfully. This is certainly not lost on the medical products sector, where both products and processes may be highly proprietary.

If no one is talking, how does a plant manager know if his process is outdated or if process components are lacking flexibility, crippling productivity, or resulting in unnecessary capital expenditures? While they are usually keenly aware of such problems with primary production equipment, they may not be aware of them when it comes to secondary, support equipment. In material handling equipment such as conveyors, both archaic and inflexible equipment often create downtime and unnecessary repairs and replacement costs. While conveyors connect critical production points, some manufacturers who experience logjams, maintenance interruptions or other deficiencies are not aware that new-generation conveyors and innovative accessories could eliminate those productivity killers.

One of the best-kept secrets in the manufacturing sphere is the "modular" conveyor system — a new concept in material handling. Truly modular conveyors can improve process flow, facilitate system integration, enhance quality assurance, reduce labor and virtually eliminate the cost of replacement conveyors — all of which can translate to competitive advantages. The benefits were so significant that one plant manager decided that he didn''t want to share his solution with his competitors, saying that he had to "search hard for this solution," and that even a friendly competitor would have to discover the solution for themselves.

"A truly modular conveyor system is a revelation to many plant managers," says Dynamic Conveyor''s Tom Habetler, speaking of his firm''s unique DynaCon® system. "It changes their way of thinking, not only about conveying products, but also about many other things that a conveyor can do for their processes."

Those other things include incorporating sensors (remote or hard-wired) that can perform "intelligent" functions, such as count products, control the conveyor flow, detect foreign objects, and interface with other equipment or systems.

But the fundamental other thing that a truly modular conveyor system does is change shape, and does so very quickly. Composed of interlocking units (modules), including belts, sides, legs, motors and accessories, these conveyors are self-contained systems that can be configured like "building blocks" to meet changing production flow in any environment where light- to medium-duty conveyors are used. Improved production flow means leaner manufacturing, enormously important to competing successfully in today''s marketplace.

"Different managers view this unique flexibility in different lights," Habetler says. "But what it comes down to is that they can now make the conveyor system more precisely fit their needs, instead of having to improvise a patchwork of heavy fixed-length conveyors or have a new conveyor system custom built for an application that''s going to constantly change."

A strategic production tool
Another competitive advantage is the many types of configurations that can be achieved with a modular conveyor system making it a strategic production tool. Instead of having to replace a conveyor whenever a workstation or production setup changes, a modular conveyor can be expanded, contracted or reshaped to fit the new requirements. Considering the cost of metal fixed-length conveyors, there are obviously savings available with a system like the DynaCon, but also improved uptime.

"Uptime is literally money to us," says Mark Evjen, R&D Engineer for Custom Bottle in Naugutuck, CT, a blow molder of containers used by the pharmaceutical industry. Having worked in the industry for over 20 years, Evjen knows that downtime required for repairs, reconfiguration or conveyor system adjustments affect the bottom line as well as his ability to meet delivery requirements.

"A blow molding department is like a war zone," says Evjen. "So, when we look at production equipment, we tend to look for the indestructible. Yet the maintenance requirements and resulting downtime of heavy steel conveyors we had been using for years were causing a number of production and even safety problems for us."

While ideal for most light- to medium-duty applications, modular conveyors are normally limited to handling products that are less than 15 pounds in weight. The handling of such heavy-duty production is probably still the domain of the conventional fixed-length metal conveyor. Yet, if robots are used to place products on the conveyor, modular systems commonly handle product weights of 15 lbs. or more.

Small changes can make big differences
Sometimes the real hidden value in modular conveyors is due to relatively small changes in configuration or accessories. These can create surprising results in terms of productivity improvements and cost savings.

Ventlab, a manufacturer of anesthesia masks uses a DynaCon conveyor equipped with a motion detector that counts masks after they pass through a human-operated inspection station. Ventlab Corporation designs and manufactures a range of medical devices used in anesthesia, respiratory care, critical care and emergency medical services.

"The conveyor and counting system make it much more efficient for inspectors to inspect the masks," says Chris Reed, Ventlab Mechanical Engineer. "They just place it on the conveyor as each mask is inspected. The conveyor system takes care of counting the masks so that they are packaged in the correct quantities. This ''intelligence'' provided by the conveyor system means that our inspection people no longer have responsibility for product counts and packaging. Because of this system, the count is accurate and workers can concentrate on their inspection process. Through this small automation process we''ve gained productivity and also ensure that inspection is not hindered by counting, which can improve quality assurance."

Habetler says a manufacturer of plastic syringes was able to make substantial gains in productivity while reducing service requirements by modifying the flights on a conveyor. "On an uphill run the syringes would cluster and get pinched in the conveyor," he explains. "So we changed the flight design and now the syringes can cascade backwards to catch another flight and avoid getting pinched."

Habetler adds that another minor modification enabled the syringe producer to alter the drop zone for packaging throughout various days of the week. As simple as that sounds, it may not be possible with a fixed-length conveyor. He says that while the modular conveyor offers the utmost in flexibility, DynaCon engineers usually test all modular conveyor systems on site to ensure that they will work efficiently and reliably in the production environment. "There are many cases when we know that a customer will want to use a conveyor for more than one setup, and we''re very interested in pre-testing the applications as a dry run," Habetler says.

Another example of the flexibility of truly modular conveyors is the ability to move them easily from one plant location to another. Some plants use the same modular conveyor for both production and packaging.

All the right stuff
The ultimate "trade secret" behind conveyor systems - achieving maximum uptime - requires the ability to service or repair them very quickly. If a forklift wipes out a chunk of a metal fixed conveyor, the system could be out of commission for a week or more. With an inventory of spare units and replacement parts, repairs can then be made to modular systems within hours.

The DynaCon line offers a "radius turn" module that can save manufacturers substantial costs while simplifying operations. Featuring flexible, ribbed sides that allow users to make turns of up to 180 degrees, the radius turn module can eliminate the need for secondary fixed conveyors. Using the radius turn, you can get your products to a destination using a single conveyor with a single motor where two fixed conveyors with two motors had been required before. Standard conveyor system modules include drive flights, side guards, retaining walls, legs and connectors. A variety of primary accessories, such as box fillers, cooling tunnels, separators, and water bath tanks for cooling products carried by the conveyor system. DynaCon also offers a radius turn conveyor that can flow on an incline or decline.

Modular conveyor belts are available in a variety of materials and configurations, making repair a simple matter. Most customers keep a supply of belt sections on-hand for incidental repairs. The DynaCon system includes a wide range of belting options, including a variety of flat top and perforated, grid, friction and radius-turn designs. Standard belting material is an impact-grade polypropylene. Optional belting materials include acetal, polyethelyne and nylon (for specific belt styles), nylon or a choice of other materials. Belts are available in widths from 4 in. to 60 in. Drive flights may be installed at any location along the belt, and are available in 1-in, 2-in. and 3-in. heights, in widths to fit belt widths.