Getting the right package to the right person at the right time and at the right price has always been the name of the game in shipping and distribution. While the mechanisms, technology and level of automation have evolved to change the nature of the game, the rules remain the same — quickly and efficiently process an order, convert it to a shipment, get it into the customer’s hands, and do it better than the competition.
Doing it better than the competition is not an easy task. Without modern material handling equipment and systems to streamline the process, the job of shipping and distribution would take a giant step backward. That step back would mean that an Amazon.com customer could wait weeks for his best-seller to arrive. The manager at a local Wal-Mart store might have to order his inventory months in advance. The global economy could crawl to a halt under the load of today’s order fulfillment volume.
Luckily, shipping and distribution managers have the benefit of automated conveying and sortation equipment to keep that from happening.
Drivers For Change
There are many drivers for change in material handling productivity, equipment and systems, including the demands of the Internet economy, the rising costs of energy, the high costs of skilled and loyal labor and customer expectations for fast and accurate order processing.
Perhaps the greatest force for change, though, is the movement to just-in-time inventory, with the many demands it puts on the supply chain. Moving product faster, more accurately and more cost-effectively is a requirement in today’s global economy, not a wish.
And while there have been few true innovations in conveying and sortation solutions in the last decade outside of the development of the linear belt sorter, material handling equipment companies have provided continual product improvements. Speed, throughput, efficiency, maintenance requirements, noise levels and power usage are areas in which improvements have been made to conventional equipment designs.
In many DCs, miles of conveyors required to move product from receiving to shipping translate to substantial noise, power usage, floor space and maintenance. They can also mean a long implementation time to get a new system or upgrade online.
One of the most important developments to address these problems is the recent move to 24-volt conveyor system designs. These systems eliminate the need for high-voltage power drops, consume significantly less energy, are safer to use, and produce much less noise than conventionally powered conveyor systems that rely on compressed air to drive rollers.
Modular systems are another innovation in the world of conveyors. Built in standard sizes and types and with standard parts and drives, modular conveyor systems shorten implementation times and speed replacement. Because one modular unit can be swapped out for another, system design is shortened and installation and repairs are simpler, reducing downtime.
Many Requirements, Basic Choices
A requirement for easy maintenance has driven change as well, and has spurred the use of belt-driven conveyors in place of chain-driven conveyors, particularly for accumulation. Because belt-driven conveyors do not need the constant lubrication that chain-driven systems require, they are increasingly used in DCs as a way to decrease maintenance hours and maximize uptime.
Belt-driven conveyors run more smoothly than chain-driven models as well, and advances in modular plastic belt drives have dramatically reduced maintenance times and costs. Similar advantages in maintenance are seen in conveyors manufactured with sealed gear reducers, which do not require regular lubrication.
Whether belt-driven or chain-driven, the choice between the two basic types of conveyor carrying surfaces—belt and roller—is largely determined by the nature of the item being conveyed. Hard-to-grip items in non-standard containers—or those with unusual packaging—call for belt conveyors, while conventionally boxed items can be easily moved using roller conveyors. In mixed-use environments, such as those in overnight and parcel delivery companies, belt conveyors are generally preferred.