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Conveyors enter the ‘one-stop shop’ arena

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FACTORY owners may once have had the luxuries of time and engineers available to work on commissioning equipment internally, but competitive pressures are making it more imperative than ever for operators to focus on core production activities rather than peripheral tasks.

Flexlink’s Adele Le Gros said manufacturers were increasingly demanding complete systems supplied from a single source.

“Rather than dealing with different suppliers for their machines, conveyors and controllers, manufacturers will purchase a conveyor system that’s already integrated with the machinery,” she told Manufacturers Monthly.

This was particularly the case for larger companies that found dealing with one supplier more efficient and costs effective than co-ordinating supply from several different vendors.

Le Gros said conveyor manufacturers and machine suppliers had responded by working more closely together to supply integrated systems.

Webb Australia’s Tom Delaney told Manufacturers Monthly automotive manufacturers were similarly demanding materials handling systems be supplied by one vendor.

“Industry is looking for a single source, a ‘one-stop shop solution’,” he said.

Delaney attributed this to manufacturers’ desire to make one company totally accountable for a project’s delivery.

“With single source responsibility it means that the customer, the motor manufacturer, doesn’t have to chase up to half a dozen individual contractors for an outcome.”

He said it was also easier to control project quality, delivery deadlines, warranty and ongoing support if one company supplied the system to the client manufacturer.

Le Gros said the trend towards consolidated supply of materials handling systems also encouraged vendors to consider the entire production process, allowing for greater customisation than if the vendor concentrated on individual pieces of equipment.

“We’re supplying an integrated packaging line rather than just a conveyor. The industry is moving away from supplying single components so I think you’ll see a lot of new products being developed,” she said.

Le Gros gave the example of equipment Flexlink had recently installed on a chocolate packing line.

“That included integrated robot functions such as picking, packing, placing and palletising in one conveyor system,” she said.

The company had previously used a manual process for packaging chocolates into gift boxes, which was time consuming, costly and required additional temporary staff to be taken on during peak production periods. The chocolates also had to be stored between the moulding and packing processes, taking additional space and in some cases reducing the product quality.

The installation of an integrated automation system allowed the company to improve efficiency, reduce reliance on temporary labour and operate the line at varying speeds according to demand.

However Delaney said the “one-stop shop” approach often proved prohibitively expensive for smaller manufacturers.

“Not every company can afford to finance a project that’s perhaps five or ten million dollars in value. Only the strong companies, in many cases international companies, can access that single source option,” he said.

At the smaller end of the market, Delaney said manufacturers often had less complex materials handling requirements and rarely needed costly integrated conveyor systems because they tended to specialise in producing smaller parts or components with fewer subassemblies.

“Items that were traditionally made in an assembly line operation, such as car seats and dash boards, are now outsourced to specialist suppliers. That means those smaller operations in say, assembling a dash board, have a much smaller requirement for automation,” he said.

Le Gros said in smaller operations flexibility was a critical factor in choosing a conveyor system.

“It is important that the system is flexible so if they want to expand or contract their capacity, their conveyor system is flexible and reusable,” she said.

Safety was another concern Le Gros highlighted, with guarding around pinch points, effective control systems, and emergency stop mechanisms being essential ingredients of any conveyor systems installed in a factory or warehouse.

Delaney said several developments in conveying had improved the safety of operations in the automotive industry.

New technologies allowed operators to stand on moving platforms to work on the vehicles, reducing the need to walk sideways or follow along beside moving subassemblies during construction.

“In some cases previously there was a danger of having a tyre or a wheel run over your foot or becoming tangled up in the hoses of your tooling. Nowadays the whole platform or floor moves along with the car so you stand in position as the car is moving; you move with the car.”

Delaney said these forms of conveyor had also made work less tiring for operators who no longer needed to walk backwards and forwards between vehicles to complete their tasks.

A further safety development Delaney noted involved using Autocad simulation packages to model assembly cells prior to installation.

“They can simulate body movements when picking and placing components in the vehicles. You can simulate the tolerances, clearances and safety aspects of the whole operation on screen before implementing it in assembly operations,” he said.

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