From Here To There.... And Everywhere In Between

Conveying and sortation technology evolves to keep pace with the demands of the modern distribution center.


“Parcel companies don’t require that their customers ship in standard box sizes or in boxes at all, so they need material handling equipment that is very flexible,” says Ray Guasco, vice president, parcel systems, FKI Logistex North America, St. Louis.

Today’s conveyor market is further driven by physical and financial limitations. Belt conveyors are generally less expensive than roller conveyors, for example, but require more drives to sustain conveying at longer distances. That means more wiring and controls, which ultimately affects cost, maintenance and noise production.

Speed and throughput levels are perhaps the ultimate technical hurdles. While most DC conveyors travel at moderate speeds until they ramp up to get to the sorters, the faster the overall speed of a conveyor system, the more product it can get out the door in a set amount of time. Today, speeds of 600 feet per minute and throughputs of 300 cartons per minute are common requirements for new DC material handling projects.

But speed is not the key, says Gary Cash, vice president, product management and marketing, FKI Logistex North America.

“The customer doesn’t care how fast his conveyor goes,” says Cash. “He actually wants it to go slower because it’s less noisy, saves energy and there’s less wear and tear. But he needs a certain throughput, and speed is one factor that determines that. As a material handling supplier, we have to make sure merges are efficient, that we gap product accurately, and that we generally optimize a system’s performance at the lowest possible speed.”

Heavy Loads

Particularly in manufacturing applications and supporting distribution operations, pallet load conveying is an important part of how goods move through a material handling facility.

“A lot of our customers are interested in reducing the need for forklifts to handle pallet loads,” says Mike Hale, product manager, pallet conveyor products, FKI Logistex North America. “They are looking for automated alternatives to forklift operation for a number of reasons, including worker safety, decreased maintenance and managing labor requirements. These alternatives can be found in pallet conveyor as well as automated storage-and-retrieval systems (AS/RS) that utilize cranes.”

Hale also sees a trend toward rainbow palletizing, an application in which pallet load stackers and articulated-arm robots work with pallet conveyors to stack and configure mixed layers of product. Pallet stacking enables better warehouse, cube and trailer space utilization, and fits both manufacturing and distribution settings where pallets are the major storage platform.

“Pallet conveyors for typical manufacturing distribution operations generally have weight limitations of 3,500 pounds,” notes Hale. “In heavier industrial settings, specially designed equipment, such as that built by our Custom Engineered Systems group, supports more robust loads.”

Other trends Hale sees are increased automation at the receiving and shipping docks using pallet conveyors, and pre-wired, plug-and-play modular conveyor systems for both pallet and conventional case conveying.

“One of the most beneficial features of plug-and-play is the ease of installation and reduced time it takes to bring the system online,” says Hale.

Finding The Right Conveyor

No two material handling projects or conveyor installations are the same. The process is unique to each DC. While a large retailer like Target might have thousands of SKUs in a DC, for example, a smaller DC might have only 200. Where Target might pick by the carton, another operation might pick by the split-case. These variations make movement, accumulation and sortation of product a completely different task.

Whatever the process, though, planning and staging conveyor transportation and accumulation are increasingly important tasks for material handling system suppliers. A system must be built to withstand hiccups, such as a sorter malfunction, and be able to play catch-up to meet desired throughput goals.

To accomplish this, the right mix of conveyor types and technologies is essential, as is a design that gives the system resilience. If the sorter goes down, product must have sufficient room to accumulate so that the conveyor system does not back up and force picking to be shut down as well.

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