Manufacturing AUTOMATION

Conveyors must transform with the process

July 17, 2009
By Bruce Boyers

Whether running a small operation lights out to keep costs down or operating a large corporation that produces custom products, manufacturing already runs on tight profit margins and have narrow margins for error. When a process is implemented, it is done with care and precision; that line must run with a minimum of input and maintenance, and certainly no unexpected surprises. After the considerable engineering it takes to link together machinery, conveyors and stations, it is expected (and rightly so) that everything will simply hum along.

Meanwhile in the front office, new clients are sought and landed, and new business is solicited from existing clients. Either one likely means a new process or production runs. The orders make their way over to the engineers, who then must work within slim budgets to add in or change existing lines. With traditional conveyors, this can mean extensive downtime as the new equipment is installed and lines rearranged. Where it can break down is in taking apart and reconfiguring conveyors; for the most part, they never go back together the same way again, necessitating the ordering of whole new systems.

Although it appears that the conveyor industry has solved most integration issues and addressed the issue of inflexible systems that are costly to alter, most conveyors touted as “modular” have not technologically advanced to current industry needs.

Taking an analogy, if someone owns a “modular” home and decides a few months or even a year down the road that they want the bathroom on the other side of the house, or want to expand the kitchen, they can’t just snap in a module and rearrange their home. In a similar way, most conveyor systems that are labeled “modular” require some type of extensive construction or deconstruction that can entail cutting and welding–and what’s to be done with parts that are cut away? They simply become very expensive waste as they cannot be used again. This is even true when only small changes are made, such as adding a corner or changing an angle.

Even the smallest task of cleaning a belt, let alone removing, changing or altering belts can also be a major issue. Even today, most belts are normally made in fixed lengths, and if they must be changed in any way, “fixes” must be arrived at with which sections of belt can be fitted together in such a way that the line can continue to run. It’s either that or ordering a whole new belt; obviously not a cost-effective solution.

In industries such as pharmaceuticals, in which processes must be maintained at a certain level of cleanliness, ease of manipulating conveying systems is also a serious issue. In cases in which areas can’t be easily reached for cleaning, belts must be removed or other parts must be taken off.” If conveyors are not specifically built to accommodate these measures, it is a labor-intensive activity when it comes to putting it all back together again; the few dollars saved on initial cost is lost on backend maintenance.

An Adaptable “Snap in Place” Approach
Henry Tamangi, Maintenance Manager, with Comar Inc., a company that manufactures packaging and liquid dispensing solutions for the pharmaceutical industry, has found a reconfigurable modular conveyor system that opens up whole new vistas in “changing on the fly.” Because The product line Comar produces is so diverse, those new processes being ordered by the front office are not such problems after all.

Comar’s processes consist of three departments: blow molding, injection molding and a secondary operations department that performs offset printing, hot stamping, silk screening and assembly of all molded components. The parts are molded, go through finishing in secondary operations and are then shipped out.

Comar integrates their processes and departments using DynaCon reconfigurable conveyor systems, produced by Dynamic Conveyor Corporation of Muskegon, Mich.

“What is so nice about them is that they are modular,” Tamangi said. “You can take them apart shorten them, lengthen them, change the angles, or change the drive motors to be constant speed or variable speed. You can change the configuration of them quite easily.”

Reconfigurable modular conveyors are used to connect different machines. For example, if a molding machine is connected to a printing machine, the conveyor is used to connect the two so there is an inline process; parts do not need to be placed in a box and physically moved. In two different applications, a molding machine, an offset printer, an assembly machine and a wrapper have all been linked. Tamangi estimates there are 50 reconfigurable conveyor systems throughout his facility.

“We’ve tried other conveyers that were touted as similar, but I wouldn’t say that they are modular like the DynaCons. We have so many because we have good success with them,” he says.

Because these systems are specifically made to be pulled apart and reassembled as needed, maintenance is quite easy. “Because we serve the pharmaceutical industry, the systems have to be cleaned and doing that with the DynaCon system is very easy,” Tamangi said. “We just clean them from time to time when needed.” We can pull the conveyors apart, take the belts outside, and power wash them. Each conveyor gets power washed once or twice a month, depending on the job.”

Although they are dreaded, malfunctions do occur in from time-to-time in every manufacturing process. Recently, Comar experienced a substantial water leak on a 550-ton press and had to roll the conveyor out. But because the conveyor system was so easily removed and put back in place, the event was much less dramatic than it might have been. “Because it was a DynaCon conveyor, the cleaning time was cut at least in half,” Tamangi reported. “We just rolled it away from the press” power washed, cleaned, and sanitized the entire conveyor and put it back in service. With metal conveyors you really can’t power wash them down, so a lot of hand wiping would take place; a lot of elbow grease.”

Another company in a similar industry utilizing the same conveyor technology had an instance of having to move an entire process to a different floor. The process utilized three conveyors, but once it was moved to its new location and rearranged for the new work area, the flow had been reduced to two conveyors and there were considerable leftover parts. With traditional conveyor technology, those parts would have gone to waste, but because of the versatile nature of these conveyors the parts were able to be re-utilized for an entire new system in another area of the plant.

Versatility of Belts
This same company had a problem with belts on previous systems, specifically with diagonal vulcanized seams that were damaged or came loose, causing the belt to come apart. Attempts to repair the belts created seams causing uneven product flow, pinching and part damage. “

DynaCon systems utilize interlocking belt systems that are formed in links allowing the belt to be taken apart and reassembled easily, every inch. Maintenance and repair are never a problem.

Ideal for Today’s Operations
Such conveyor systems are ideal for operations with frequent layout changes or those who need to quickly change process lines, but also ideal for operations that are competing with larger corporations with greater budgets. For example, Air Support Medical Company, manufacturer of parts for anesthetic and respiratory circuits, wanted the ability to run their molding machines 24X7, but that was challenge for the small corporation.

“To do that would we would have needed two operators on at night, but then you need to have supervisors and it gets to be financially difficult.” said Kathy Walters, Air Support Medical Company’s owner.

The solution has been to evolve lights-out operations at night, using a simple video surveillance system, similar to one used in a convenience store, and the internet to monitor the molding machines. However, before discovering the DynaCon modular conveyor system, the company’s ability was limited.

“Sometimes if we had small parts, we might run it in a Gaylord, but it had to be something that wouldn’t make a lot of parts because we couldn’t get it away from the machine fast enough. The DynaCon gave us the ability to run a lot of the parts and be able to control the flow of parts that came off of it,” said Walters.

Being able to quickly set up and reconfigure conveyor systems has been a major source of help for them. “We just bought our fifth conveyor system,” said Walters. “The flexibility is great; you can move them around, or you can add parts to go higher or remove them if you need a lower conveyor. They give us the cost-effective ability to run and control the flow of the parts during lights-out operations.”

Their formula has worked; in a declining economy, they are expanding and having to hire additional personnel.

To remain competitive in today’s tough markets, manufacturers should take every measure possible to ensure they can replace, change or add new processes “on the fly” with technologies such as reconfigurable modular conveyor systems.

Bruce Boyers is a freelance writer based in Glendale, Calif.

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