Maximize Your Conveyor Design, Operation

Quick – name the manufacturers of the conveyors out in your plant. How about the specific series, or types of styles – can you name those as well? Most people can’t.

Often, conveyors are an afterthought to finishing a project. After all, they just move things from Point A to Point B, right? That depends on what engineering has in mind for them. While some conveyors simply move product from one point to the next, other conveyors are outfitted to handle much more complex processing.

Getting the most from your conveyor system is one way to help improve your company’s bottom line. A few things to consider in maximizing conveyor output are selecting the proper conveyors for the application, and making sure they are properly maintained to avoid downtime.

Selecting your conveyors

Although your new piece of equipment or machinery may still only exist on the drawing board, you should consider early on in the designing phase the performance specifications of all supporting conveyors, as well as any features and benefits the conveyor system ought to have.

After you have a fairly good idea of what kind of performance you’ll need your conveyors to do, the next step is to decide whether or not to build the conveyors in-house or purchase them from a supplier. Many plant operators, integrators and OEMs choose to build their own conveyors. Although traveling this route may seem to be a money-saving idea, the cons outweigh the pros of building conveyors in-house. Here’s why.

It takes time to build conveyors from scratch. When all the resources are added up – time to design, locate and purchase needed parts, and finally spending the man-hours to build the conveyor system – the savings isn’t much of a savings at all. And once the system is completed, just how reliable is it? Remember, all components on the equipment or machinery that bears your company’s name is a direct reflection on your company. If something rather small like the supporting conveyor system is continually failing, what kind of impression is that piece of equipment or machinery with your company’s name on it going to leave?  

How about replacement parts? If the bearings on the conveyor you built are shot, how quickly will you be able to obtain a replacement part and make the repair? Conveyors made in-house most likely will have parts purchased from various suppliers. If those suppliers discontinue making the parts you need as replacements, or even go out of business, you could be left scrambling to get the conveyors back in action.

Another area to consider when building conveyors in-house is the employee who builds them. What happens if that person quits or retires? Will someone else be able to step in with the required knowledge to properly service the conveyors if maintenance is required? There are just a lot of unknown factors that can creep up when building conveyors in-house.

Conveyor systems built professionally from a reputable supplier, on the other hand, come with benefits unseen with in-house built conveyors. For starters, conveyor manufacturers typically only do one thing – build conveyors. So issues such as quality and dependability are more likely to shine through as opposed to in-house built conveyors.

A second benefit is speed. How long will it take an employee at your company to design and build a conveyor system, in addition to doing other assigned tasks? Lead times for professionally built conveyors with some companies have steadily decreased to only a few days. Why spend the time and resources to task someone to design and build the conveyors when you can have them built specifically for your application, and have it up and running in a week? Your employee’s time can be better spent doing something else.

A third benefit is assurance you’ll get a properly built conveyor for your exact application. Many conveyor manufacturers nowadays design and build a conveyor system to fit precisely into your application. For example, if you need a conveyor that’s 11 feet, 3 1/2 inches long and 15 inches wide – no problem. Conveyors built to precise specifications will not only work better in your machinery, they’ll probably also look better, too. Again, the supporting conveyor system is a reflection on your equipment or machinery. If they look sloppy or poorly built, your company’s name can suffer.  

Also keep in mind the conveyor system is meant to accomplish a more unique application. For example if the application calls for handling heavy parts, or working in conjunction with a separate system to perform quality assurance inspections on parts – the professionally built conveyor system comes manufactured with those factors in mind.

Professionally-built conveyors eliminate any issues with replacement parts. Even if a manufacturer updates a conveyor line or doesn’t make the exact conveyor system you purchased a few years ago, most companies will still be able to service you and their products with parts and customer service. And speaking of customer service, it’s helpful to be able to quickly speak with a real live person and receive technical assistance, instead of inconveniencing them by waiting for your employee who built the conveyor in-house to get back from vacation. These are some of the more notable benefits professionally-built conveyors can offer you that can impact your company’s bottom line.

Maintaining your conveyors

Once your equipment is up and running, it’s imperative they keep running and running well. It doesn’t do any good to have a several hundred thousand dollar system sitting idle because the supporting conveyor system is down for maintenance. Establishing an ongoing preventive maintenance program for conveyors is one way to trim downtime by catching potential problems before they can shut down an entire line.

One of the first things to consider when establishing a preventive maintenance program is how often the conveyors are operating. Obviously, the more hours each day they run, the move often they need to be rotated out for maintenance.

Considering creating an inventory database of all facility conveyors containing key information such as:

  •  Make and models of conveyors
  • Dimensions (conveyor length and belt width)
  • Type of motor
  • Type of belt
  • Serial numbers for bearings
  • Date of last maintenance check
  • Date of next inspection
  • Type of maintenance performed
  • Contact information of the conveyor manufacturer

There’s no right or wrong way to create an inventory database; it can be as simple or extensive as you want it to be. The purpose is to get control of a company’s conveyor fleet and start tracking the conveyors, ultimately, for improved performance.

The next step in starting a preventive maintenance program is establishing a bench stock of common replacement parts for conveyors. A well maintained bench stock allows you to quickly repair your conveyor systems and minimize production downtime. Some conveyor manufacturers can audit your conveyor inventory and develop a list of parts you should keep in your bench stock.

So what are some safety considerations to keep in mind when establishing a bench stock for your conveyors?

  • Use the proper parts – Conveyors often come with a list of common replacement/wear parts, which are pre-engineered to work properly with the existing conveyor. Using proper parts helps ensure reliable repair and operation
  • Don’t wait until it’s too late – don’t let wear parts get so worn out that they can potentially be a hazard to the product carried by the conveyor as well as any operators or workers interacting with the conveyor
  • Use parts made from the proper materials – depending on the application or environment the conveyor is being used for, certain materials may be necessary. For example, in a wet or wash-down environment, you need to use stainless steel, UHMW, or another kind of material that won’t rust or harbor harmful bacteria and other microorganisms

When servicing conveyors, be sure to keep you and your team safe by following these steps:

  •  When operating or working around a conveyor:       
    • Do not wear loose clothing
    • Do not wear jewelry, such as bracelets and necklaces
    • Keep long hair pulled back
    • Design and set up workstations away from pinch points
  • Always make sure the conveyor is properly turned off and/or locked-out before performing maintenance
  • E-Stops or other controls to stop operation immediately should always be installed and easily accessible in case of emergency
  • Proper guiding/guarding should be installed at all areas that could potentially be pinch points during operation
  • Support stands should be spread evenly and effectively along the length of the conveyor ensuring the conveyor is balanced and can effectively support the load
  • Diagonal bracing from the stands to the conveyor frame should be installed for additional support – this is especially true for conveyors that will be moved around a lot and may be on casters

Professionally built conveyors do so much more than simply move product from one point to the next. They are fully automated and work in conjunction with a processing or packaging line, receiving and delivering information to other systems along the product flow’s path. And when they’re properly serviced and maintained, conveyors do have a direct impact on a company’s productivity and profitability. 

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