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Many industry spokespersons use the "turn-of-the-century" date as the time to herald a new era of opportunity for the material handling industry. They accurately predict that revolutionary information technology and sophisticated automation will easily orchestrate faster, error-free service in warehousing, inventory control, handling, delivery and service.
Unfortunately, user-friendly, real-time brain power continues as only one half of the Brains + Brawn = Modern Materials Handling success equation. We can't ignore the need to accelerate the evolutionary process of developing muscle mechanisms that address operational, maintenance, energy and environmental issues. In my opinion, the 21st Century brains and brawn issue, to quote the esteemed Yogi Berra, is "1970's deja vu, all over again."
When INTERROLL started business in late 1969, OSHA had just been formed. A logical, high-priority industrial target for them was noise, particularly the unacceptable high decibel (dB) levels prevalent in conveying operations. Noise generated by worn side frame holes and roller shafts, worn commercial-grade ball bearings and metallic clanging added to the din.
Computerized control of storage and retrieval functions, conveying and packaging was in its infancy. But modern production philosophies, such as just-in-time assembly and cell manufacturing were beginning to push the handling, speed, loading and throughput envelope beyond the design capacities of available material handling systems.
Maintenance, always a high ticket item, faced a new challenge as a wider range of transfer and transportation components appeared, and drive systems became more complex. Managers were facing personnel competence and motivation deficiencies.
Also, typical powered conveying system designs with centralized controls were inflexible. Typically, the systems were permanently configured and fixed in place to serve one specific master, and no other. Production and product changes usually required expensive redeployment with associated cost and downtime. Often, conveyors were scraped and replaced with entirely new systems at considerable expense, well before their normal anticipated life span.
Fortunately, during the 70's, 80's and into the 90's, conveyor equipment designers accepted their challenges and responded with prolific solutions that can be categorized as very innovative. We have witnessed:
Internally powered conveyor rollers and motorized pulleys that eliminate all exposed drive train components: motors, gear boxes, belts, chains, chain guards, etc.Previous drive systems and costly maintenance needs are gone forever.
Up-grade combinations, such as rollers with precision bearings, plastic rollers, and spring-loaded, tapered hex-shaped roller shafts put a "hush" on conveying operations. Eliminated are premature bearing and side frame wear, and the problematical rattling and bouncing that produces unacceptable noise.
Modularized conveyor sections that allow rapid deployment and redeployment of a system, if and when a conveyor system format changes. Of course, the modules now have distributive electronic control that allows instantaneous alterations to control circuitry.
In addition, powered roller conveyors that run only on demand are now providing significant energy savings. They shut off the power, zone by zone, automatically, whenever the conveying function is not needed.
These are just a few innovations that have helped conveyor designs keep pace with industry mandates.
2000 And Beyond
Here we are on the brink of the opportunity years, 2000 and beyond. Through the years, suppliers have continually responded to help the industry grow. Systems are available to handle conveyors that boast of high throughput, 300 FPM or faster speeds, 24-hr a day operation, all at reduced total costs; operational parameters unobtainable just a few years ago.
The "faster" trend obviously will continue as the variety of goods proliferates our consumer driven economy. And, the materials handling industry will insist on systems that are safer, quieter, faster, durable, easily reconfigured and require lower maintenance.
Sound familiar? These demands are the same demands that we suppliers responded to throughout the last quarter century. Will it happen? Of course, as long as suppliers can manage creative ways to apply proven technology in even greater quantities. It may require more intensive partnering between the supplier and end-user, but the tools are available and profitability predictable.
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