Speed, reliability and flexibility are top priorities for local manufacturers when considering conveyor systems and associated equipment. Sarah Falson investigates.
Traditionally, manufacturers have adopted conveyors to speed-up their processes and save on manual labour. But with changing consumer habits, increasing global competition and shorter lead times, manufacturers are under pressure to deliver smaller runs of varying product lines more quickly than ever before.
Considering the relatively small scale of Australia’s manufacturing market when compared to its global counterparts, local players need to be extremely flexible, constantly changing their processes to deliver products faster, cheaper and of a consistently high standard – not only for local customers, but also for growing export markets.
Key to this flexibility is production equipment, in particular conveyor systems, which need to allow smooth processing and prevent bottlenecks from occurring. Equipment suppliers must build safety in to their systems, and offer short lead-times to ensure customers can upgrade their production lines without affecting the flow of product going out the door.
Key conveyor features
For Tsubaki Australia national manager – mining and industrial, Gary Griffiths, all manufacturers – regardless of which sector they operate in – require three key components from their conveyors: speed, reliability and flexibility.
“This includes the largest conveyors used for conveying mining products such as coal and iron ore to smaller conveyors used in the food and beverage industry,” Griffiths told Manufacturers’ Monthly.
Sydney-based Tsubaki supplies chain and power transmission products for conveyor systems throughout Australia, New Zealand, Papua New Guinea and the South Pacific. The company’s main business is either replacing equipment on existing conveyors, or supplying OEM product for conveyor engineers.
“Manufacturers need conveyors to be reliable so they can transport their product onto ships, trains, planes and trucks for delivery to the consumer. If a conveyor is down, and deliveries cannot be met, these days consumers have multiple choices to buy a competitor’s products,” said Griffiths.
“[Also], as consumers’ needs and demands are changing faster than ever before, manufacturers must be able to alter or offer different products to meet those needs. As such, conveyors need to be flexible to allow for different products to be conveyed on the same conveyor. Modular conveyor systems are very popular in food and beverage industries to accommodate varying sizes of cans, boxes and packages.”
The team at Tsubaki has been experiencing a notable rise in the popularity of its lube-free Lambda chain in the food manufacturing sector; Griffiths says this type of chain eliminates the need for lubricant, therefore reducing the risk of lubricant contaminating edible products on the manufacturing line.
“Lambda chain has also provided our customers with increased chain life and less unplanned failures, due to its wear resistance properties,” Griffiths said.
Choosing a conveyor supplier
Australis Engineering – also based in Sydney – designs, manufactures and installs integrated materials handling solutions comprising mechanical, electrical and automation components.
The company’s engineering manager, Anthony Gustafson, says he has noticed a shift in the market away from customised or ‘turn-key’ solutions towards proven or ‘pre-engineered’ systems; this means the customer ultimately spends less on its conveyor system, and can receive the solution faster.
“Traditionally the type of systems and conveyors we built were completely custom-designed and built to meet a specific application. [However], we are now seeing that many clients want a proven system rather than a one-off custom-designed system – so utilising pre-designed and tested modules which go together in various configurations to meet the client’s need are becoming more popular,” he told Manufacturers’ Monthly.
“This approach also means less engineering time so a cheaper overall project, while good background engineering means that even a pre-designed system can be tailored enough to suit a specific application.
“Of course, there are some applications where a custom-designed system is needed, so in those applications we still use a library of standard designs and components which can then be customised – we refer to this as ‘customised standard equipment’. This provides the best of both worlds for the client.”
According to Gustafson, the lead-time between specifying a conveyor system and receiving the equipment is one of the top factors affecting the decision-making process for manufacturers when searching for an equipment supplier.
“The decision-making process has become more extended over the last few years, however the delivery deadlines always remain the same – so being able to quickly supply equipment is a constant demand,” Gustafson said.
“On an actual equipment level, clean design within the food industry has always been present, but there is [now] more and more focus on this along with looking at ways to improve designs to make cleaning easier. Also, as company maintenance teams are reduced, quick and easy maintenance is more of a priority now.”
In Gustafson’s experience, the food and beverage, and warehousing sectors, are the fastest adopters of new conveyor equipment in the manufacturing space.
“The food and beverage industry have always been big users of conveyors and there are always new developments in products and packaging, so they have constant need for new systems. The other area is in warehousing and pallet handling: as more imported products come into the market, there is naturally a greater demand for systems to handle pallets,” he explained.
Safety is also a key priority in conveyor system design and implementation, and oftentimes manufacturers will specify new equipment to fix existing safety issues.
“In many cases, a new conveyor system is used to remedy or lessen an OH&S issue. One client recently implemented a conveyor system to transport their product from production to warehousing, via an elevator feeding onto a 130m-long overhead conveyor, which travelled between two buildings and over a roadway,” Gustafson recalled.
“This removed the vast majority of forklift movements around their production area, while also providing a more ergonomic and safe method of palletising the product in the warehouse.
“In implementing this solution, the production area was also freed of pallets on the floor, meaning better room and access around production machines, easier access for operators to perform their tasks, and therefore better production efficiency.”