June 14, 2010
material handling update | Conveyors

Conveyor makers roll with demand

Conveyor makers roll with demand

Customers today want equipment that's greener, more versatile, and more efficient than the machinery offered in the past. Manufacturers have responded with an array of new models and accessories.

By Peter Bradley

There's nothing like a downturn to accelerate a trend. For some time now, distribution center operators have been looking to their conveyor suppliers to help them do things like achieve higher throughput and accuracy, handle a greater variety of packages and other conveyable products, and conserve energy. Those demands have been driven by pressures faced by the DCs themselves to fill orders faster, ship orders that are complete and error-free (or face chargebacks), and generate faster turns.

William J. Casey, president of SI Systems, which specializes in piece and case picking automation on the order fulfillment side of its business, says much of what customers are seeking is based on their drive to reduce inventories and accelerate inventory turns. The growth of Internet sales has led to greater demand for automated or semi-automated piece picking, he adds. When it comes to trends on the demand side, three in particular stand out, says Ken Ruehrdanz, market development manager for Dematic. First, he says, companies are looking to modernize and upgrade existing systems. Second, they're interested in adopting solutions that are more energy efficient. And third, they're asking for systems that can convey a wider variety of products, such as very lightweight goods and polybagged products.

Control issues
Ruehrdanz and others in the industry also report that they're fielding more requests for equipment that offers higher throughput and accuracy. "Essentially, that's about controls," he says, referring to the electronic devices that monitor and manage everything from conveyor speed to maintenance. "Control technology has to drive the air out of the system—the gaps between loads," Ruehrdanz adds. "We can design systems so that they actually run at a slower speed but offer a higher rate of throughput."

Tim Kraus and Kevin Klueber, product managers for Intelligrated, say their company is doing much the same thing. "We're keeping throughput up by keeping machine speeds at a minimum and improving handling and predictability," says Kraus. He adds that controlling the actual speed of the conveyor extends machine life, reduces energy use, and minimizes noise. By employing technology that reduces gaps, improves predictability, and eliminates errors such as side by sides, those goals can be achieved, he says.

John Clark, director of marketing for TGW, says his company is also focusing on controls. Improved controls, he says, provide greater visibility into the operation of a customer's system and enhance the customer's ability to manage it. "They make the conveyor smarter," he says. He adds that enhanced controls help accelerate return on investments in conveyors because the resulting improvements in throughput, accuracy, and energy efficiency can reduce power and labor costs.

Handle with care
Another trend noted by several companies was the emerging demand for conveyors that can handle a greater variety of goods. A spokeswoman for Intelligrated writes, "There has been a trend in the industry for [material handling equipment] systems to handle pieces rather than cases. This results in a demand on the [equipment] providers to improve small carton handling on all types of technologies used throughout a system, the goal being to reduce the number of non-conveyables without sacrifices to system throughput or capital investment budgets."

Klueber notes that the technological challenges have been further complicated by changes in packaging. "We have to handle more and more diverse products and carton types," he says. "The range of conveyables continues to expand." These include smaller and lighter cartons and polybags, which historically have proved a challenge for conveyors.

Conveyor makers have responded with adaptations that include segmented belt conveyors, which can handle polybagged items better than traditional long belts can, and sliding shoe sorters that turn light goods carefully before diverting them to the designated lane.

Get more from what you have
Not all buyers are focused on new equipment, however. Many DC managers, even from some of the nation's largest and best capitalized companies, have focused on getting more out of existing systems before investing in new equipment. Michael Bozym, director of engineering for HK Systems, says, "We've devoted a lot of effort to the aftermarket. With capital so tight, even big customers are looking for small cost projects that will improve throughput or reduce damage."

Ruehrdanz says, "There is a continued requirement to upgrade existing material handling or conveyor systems. Customers are asking if there is a way to go back in and upgrade controls and maybe make some mechanical upgrades. There are a lot of installed systems, and customers want to get the most out of them."

The decision whether to upgrade older equipment or invest in new systems can be a challenge. "A lot of automation technology investment happened 20 years ago," says Kraus. As a result, a large number of facilities are wrestling with that decision today, he explains. Kraus says Intelligrated is in the process of completing system audits for several customers to aid with those determinations.

Whatever adaptations or investments DC operators make, energy conservation is likely to appear near the top of their priority lists. "There is much more sensitivity toward designing systems with energy-efficient controls and technology," Ruehrdanz says. That has led to the development of both mechanical and control technologies that reduce energy use, including low-voltage motor-driven rollers and controls that can idle conveyor segments when no products are detected.

Finally, conveyor makers, like other players in the material handling equipment industry, continue to invest in their own operations to boost efficiency and control costs. For instance, Bozym reports that HK Systems has implemented lean principles in its own operations. "We've found ways we can execute jobs more efficiently and cost effectively," he says. "[That allows us to] offer goods at a more competitive cost."

This article has been revised and expanded since it was originally published.

About the Author

Peter Bradley
Editor Emeritus
Peter Bradley is an award-winning career journalist with more than three decades of experience in both newspapers and national business magazines. His credentials include seven years as the transportation and supply chain editor at Purchasing Magazine and six years as the chief editor of Logistics Management.

More articles by Peter Bradley

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