Conveyor systems have long been embedded with sensors and connected to remote monitoring systems for maintenance and troubleshooting, but advancing technology is quickly taking things to the next level. Sophisticated sensing technology and Internet-enabled connectivity are delivering more detailed information to the DC floor, allowing organizations to move beyond routine preventive maintenance schedules and into the realm of predictive maintenance, where downtime is minimized, equipment availability is maximized, and productivity can reach new heights.
Conveyor equipment manufacturers and systems integrators are making this possible with solutions that emulate the "smart factory" movement, also known as Industry 4.0, in which automation, data exchange, and other technologies merge to create leaner, more productive manufacturing environments. In the DC, conveyor system solutions that incorporate the same technologies can provide greater visibility into mechanics and equipment usage, helping organizations avoid equipment failure and allowing them to take a more proactive approach to managing their conveyor systems.
"The enhanced ability to take action based on real-time information is what has transformed the performance of conveyor systems and automated material handling systems," says Ken Ruehrdanz, distribution systems market manager for systems integrator Dematic. "More sophisticated sensing technology, enhanced computing power, and the reduced cost of data gathering and storage allow systems integrators to track, identify, monitor, analyze, and optimize the performance of convey and sort systems."
And that translates to better all-around performance in the DC, adds Diane Blair, senior manager, international services and technical communications, for material handling solutions provider Honeywell Intelligrated. Blair emphasizes the pressure on today's DCs to work smarter and faster than ever before—while avoiding the lost revenue and the blow to customer satisfaction that comes from unplanned downtime.
"Everybody needs uptime, and they are trying to get as much availability out of the equipment they have—especially today," she says. "You never want a surprise when you're trying to ship a million boxes."
The Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT) is driving much of the change occurring in conveyor system maintenance, particularly when it comes to monitoring the condition of equipment in the DC. Ruehrdanz points to advances in warehouse execution systems (WES)—software designed to control movement of products in a facility—as a case in point.
"In the era of the [IIoT], the WES can move from not only managing the operation [to] also optimizing conveyor system operation, repairs, and maintenance," he explains, pointing to Internet connectivity as the conduit for supplying more extensive, real-time data about the state of the conveyor system, down to the component level. "The maintenance management module of the WES software continuously assesses every portion of the conveyor network and then submits alerts when a threshold has been reached or a module is underperforming."
Those alerts allow technicians to schedule routine preventive maintenance—including automatic ordering of spare parts, in some cases. Analytics software records operational data, reporting trends and predicting future performance.
"Predictive analytics capabilities will continue to expand as IIot allows us to know what will happen, when it will happen, and what we can do about it," Ruehrdanz says. "This will allow warehouse and production operations to maximize operational excellence and strengthen the case for automation."
Similarly, predictive analytics are at the heart of Honeywell Intelligrated's Connected Distribution Center, a system that combines machine-level sensors, smart controllers, and connected devices for gathering data and delivering information on equipment health and facility performance in real time. Blair says the system allows unprecedented visibility into potential problems.
"It provides us with asset-level data that helps the customer set operations and performance limits," she explains. "We will see things we wouldn't normally see, such as a motor on a line way back in a system that makes a noise or vibration. [Technicians] may not see that until it gets to preventive maintenance—or they may not see it at all. It allows us to help them catch those anomalies prior to a failure, so they can address them before they become issues."
VIDEOS, APPS, AND MORE
High-tech connectivity is also helping to address labor-related concerns stemming from a dearth of technically trained conveyor maintenance technicians on the DC floor. Conveyor equipment makers and systems integrators are stepping up efforts to provide hands-on assistance with troubleshooting and maintenance needs by turning to IIoT-powered apps as well as emerging technologies such as virtual reality (VR). Mitch Smith, vice president of engineering for conveyor manufacturer Hytrol, points to the company's Hytrol Toolbox app that allows technicians to access equipment information and maintenance instructions on their mobile devices. The technician simply scans a serial number or 2-D (two-dimensional) bar code on the equipment in question to gain access to a host of information, including frequently asked questions and troubleshooting advice. The company provides video instruction in a similar way via its "Ask Hytrol" series on YouTube.
"One of the challenges the industry has—particularly material handling and a lot of e-commerce facilities and parcel facilities—is that there is a lack of trained and experienced conveyor maintenance technicians today," Smith says. "This leads us to integrate maintenance solutions by employing more controls, software, and other technologies."
Similarly, Dematic uses a smartphone app that allows technicians to stream live video or audio from an Android or iOs device. Called SiteView, the app enables Dematic's technical support team to see what the conveyor maintenance technician sees while hearing the technician describe the issue or ask a question.
Some companies are already using virtual reality tools for maintenance requirements, in the form of VR glasses and headsets that deliver hands-on instruction, for instance. Hytrol is developing its own Target Virtual Reality app that allows technicians to use their mobile device to hover over a piece of equipment, generating troubleshooting questions and step-by-step maintenance instructions on the device. Smith says the Target VR app will be released early in 2019.
"We're even looking at ways we can have online or video chat through this app," Smith says. "We're trying to connect the real world of what's going on in the field directly to the task at hand—and if need be, connecting to a human being at some point."
Smith adds that the race is on for conveyor solutions providers to bring more and more predictive maintenance capabilities to the table.
"It's about keeping the system running. It's about keeping equipment available for use," he explains. "At the end of the day, DCs are there to provide a service to consumers. It's our job to make sure the conveyor is running and available at all times. Being able to predict up front if there's a problem—that's what we're all trying to do."