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.
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."
Here's a brief roundup of what some of the leading companies have been up to lately, plus a listing of several other leading service and equipment providers.
AmbaFlex is a manufacturer of specialty conveyors, including spiral conveyors, flexible conveyors, and dynamic accumulators used in distribution as well as in packaging, bottling, and printing lines.
Beumer Group says its acquisition of Koch Holding, a Czech Republic-based company, strengthens its position in tubular belt conveyors. Beumer Corp., the group's North American arm, serves the United States, Canada, Mexico, Central America, and the Caribbean.
Dematic has expanded its Technical Support Call Center services. The added capabilities include self-service access to the technical support database and a new alert monitoring service. The self-service pOréal is available to Dematic customers with a support contract.
The new alert monitoring service uses software connected to the user's system to monitor activity and equipment in the system and report any anomalies in operation or equipment status to the Dematic Technical Support Call Center.
HK Systems has introduced the MB-100 Multi-Belt Sorter, a unit designed to handle and sort a variety of products into high-density after-sort divert lanes or work stations. The company says the MB-100's sortation rates can exceed 100 packages per minute for packages ranging from 6 to 36 inches in length and weighing up to 75 pounds. The transfers and diverts can be relocated when product sizes or field situations change. HK Systems says the new sorter is suited for the food and beverage, media, retail, postal, wine and spirits, manufacturing, and pharmaceutical industries.
Hytrol Conveyor Co. has introduced its Extenda Pusher, an accessory for systems where mounting space is minimal but products require 90-degree sortation. It has throughput rates of up to 50 cartons per minute and is available in four stroke lengths. The device mounts to units with overall conveyor widths of 18, 24, 30, and 36 inches. Proximity sensors for both extend and return signals allow users to adjust the stroke length.
Hytrol has also introduced an addition to its E24 motor-driven roller conveyor family. The company says its E24 Timing Belt Transfer, which sorts up to 40 cartons a minute, increases productivity by providing improved throughput.
Intelligrated says it has made advancements throughout its standard conveyor and sorter product line in response to demands from customers for equipment that can handle lightweight and delicate items previously considered to be non-conveyables. To maintain gapping, orientation, and carton integrity, Intelligrated has integrated improvements such as close-center roller conveyor and minimum diameter belt conveyor for carton control and software tools to minimize jams, eliminate side-by-side inefficiencies, and reduce the potential for product fall-through.
The company also recently added Crisplant tilt-tray and cross-belt sortation solutions to its product line as a result of its 2009 acquisition of FKI Logistex. In addition, Intelligrated has launched an expanded OnTimeParts operation, which offers more than 50,000 replacement and upgrade parts for material handling equipment.
Jervis B. Webb has introduced a new friction-drive conveyor system as an alternative to overhead and inverted power and free conveyors. The company, a subsidiary of Daifuku Co., says the heavy-duty model can move loads of up 2,500 pounds and the light-duty model can move goods as light as 250 pounds. Friction conveyor offers a smooth continuous flow of products and can travel up to 240 feet per minute. In addition, Webb offers variable frequency drives, which allow speeds to be adjusted.
Knapp Logistics Automation, which focuses on warehouse and DC automation, designs, manufactures, and installs integrated material handling and software solutions. Knapp specializes in semi- and fully automated order fulfillment and assembly systems focused on high-speed/high-volume "each" picking.
Ralphs-Pugh, a manufacturer of conveyor rollers and components, has introduced its Green (E) Series conveyor rollers. The new rollers with ABEC-1 Precision Bearings are now available with eco-friendly biodegradable grease. This new lubricant is a high-grade, high-performance grease that provides low-temperature starting torque. It also offers a long life over a wide range of working temperatures while eliminating the environmental concerns associated with petroleum-based lubricants.
SI Systems is a systems integrator that supplies branded automated material handling systems for manufacturing, assembly, order fulfillment, and distribution operations.
SSI Schaefer offers products for warehousing, materials handling, transport, and storage, including a wide variety of modular designed conveying systems.
TGW is an integrated logistics solutions and material handling equipment provider for both large and small companies. Its expertise is in the planning, design, implementation, and lifetime service of integrated logistics solutions to enhance a company's supply chain operations.
This article has been revised and expanded since it was originally published.