Materials Handling

What is conveyor technology? Applications & challenges

| Author / Editor: Sebastian Hofmann / Theresa Knell

Conveyor technology is one of the most important disciplines in mechanical engineering. Various traditional and modern technologies help to transport goods in a company.
Conveyor technology is one of the most important disciplines in mechanical engineering. Various traditional and modern technologies help to transport goods in a company. (Source: / TGWmechanics / CC BY-SA 3.0)

Conveyor technology is of central importance for the flow of materials in companies. Learn more about what effective technology can accomplish in this area.

The term in brief: Conveyor technology is a sub-discipline of mechanical engineering. It deals with the transport of general cargo and bulk goods and is part of intralogistics, i.e. internal company logistics. By contrast, distribution logistics is a sub-area of extra logistics.

A detailed definition of conveyor technology can be found on the website of the Chemnitz University of Technology: “Conveyor technology is the technology of moving objects and persons by technical means in any direction and over limited distances. It also includes the theory of conveying means and the systems that are formed with them."

Conveyor technology plays a central role in the material flow of companies. In the chain of all processes of the production, processing and distribution of goods, it ensures that goods are dispensed, delivered, stored and finally picked. Conveyor technology is individually tailored to the respective business model and sector.

This is what matters in the food industry, for example:

In the food industry, goods must above all be transported quickly and gently so that they do not spoil or be damaged. The transport of frozen goods is a particular challenge because the cold chain must always be maintained.

When processing milk, for example, it is important that a large number of goods can be transported quickly, safely and refrigerated within the company.
When processing milk, for example, it is important that a large number of goods can be transported quickly, safely and refrigerated within the company. (Source: flickr, bauernverband)

Differences between conveyor technology and storage technology

Warehouse logistics deals with permanently installed or rigid elements in the logistics process, such as shelving and stacking systems. Goods that are used, for example, for the production of goods or are intended for further processing and distribution are stored in these warehouses. Conveyor technology, on the other hand, handles all the mobile units in intralogistics. It is not about storage, but about the transport of goods. In order to ensure a smooth flow of internal logistical processes, conveyor and storage technology must be closely interlinked. To do this, companies need tailor-made application concepts.

Aims of conveyor logistics

Sustainably planned and implemented conveyor technology has the following advantages:

  • Space Utilization: By using shuttles and freight elevators, for example, the floor space can be used on several levels.
  • Time savings: Conveyor systems can increase warehouse throughput and avoid long downtimes and delays. They also enable fast picking, i.e. the rapid removal of individual goods, and thus accelerate the throughput speed.
  • Individualization: Modern technologies create the prerequisites for being able to process highly individualized orders and production processes promptly.
  • Flexibility: The range of conveyor technologies allows the flexible installation of conveyor processes adapted to the requirements of the business model. Mobile elements, such as scissor roller conveyors, can be used where they are needed and folded up again afterwards to save space.
  • Target reliability: Automated processes ensure that goods are delivered on time, to the right place and in the right quantity. Compared to human resources, intelligent transport systems are much more reliable because all company processes are interlinked and coordinated.
  • Added value: Sustainable conveyor technology can increase the added value of a company by making the internal material flow more efficient and effective. Costs can be saved in many ways, for example by optimizing time and space. The higher the degree of automation, the higher the potential to improve the cost-effectiveness of a system.

Technologies and machines used in conveyor technology

In logistics, a basic distinction is made between manual and automated or semi-automated conveyor technology. Manual systems are chosen above all when goods have to be moved once or only at irregular intervals. This is usually done with the aid of roller conveyors. In contrast to other elements of conveyor technology, roller conveyors can be connected directly to the workplaces of employees. For example, roller conveyors significantly simplify picking, i.e. the collection of certain partial quantities of goods.

The following types are used as a standard:

  • Light roller conveyors for loads up to approx. 50 kg (mainly used in the CEP industry, i.e. for courier express parcel services).
  • Heavy-duty roller conveyors for goods weighing up to several tons.
  • Small roller conveyors for goods of small size.
  • Scissor roller conveyors for mobile use.

Often roller conveyors are supported by so-called ball tables. Several freely movable metal balls are inserted in the top of these tables, which make the rapid locomotion of different goods possible.

However, the trend is towards automated and semi-automated conveyor technologies, such as driverless transport systems (AGVs), loading systems, lifting stations, lifting platforms and sorting systems. These units can be individually designed according to the company's requirements regarding the weight of the goods, the nature of the floor and the dimensions of the goods. Compared to manual systems, they ensure significantly higher productivity and efficiency in intralogistics. At the same time, they guarantee high safety standards. Today, they are mainly used in the mail order business.

Application example automotive industry:

When it comes to conveyor technology, the production of motor vehicles involves the precise positioning of workpieces, applications in confined spaces, ergonomic workplaces and flexibility. Therefore, electric monorail conveyors, platform technologies, driverless transport systems as well as lifting and vertical conveyors are used extensively in the automotive industry. Skid systems, i.e. steel carriages that travel on roller conveyors, also support the production process, for example in the transport of the bodywork through assembly and paint shops.

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Continuous and non-continuous conveyors

Furthermore, machines in conveyor technology can be divided into continuous conveyors and discontinuous conveyors:

  • 1. Continuous conveyors transport goods continuously and without interruption. This ensures a comparatively high throughput. Examples of continuous conveyors are: Roller conveyors, belt, chain and gravity wheels, screw conveyors, blowers and vibratory conveyors
  • 2. In contrast to continuous conveyors, non-continuous conveyors transport goods in irregular intervals. They are mainly used in companies where intralogistics is only partially automated. Examples of non-continuous conveyors are: Forklift trucks, trolleys, tractors, cranes and elevators

Automated technologies, mostly continuous conveyors, are often supported by manual devices and vehicles. This is referred to as semi-automated or partially automated systems. A transport system is the combination of transport vehicles and technologies with (intelligent) software, i.e. with control and information systems. The selection of appropriate machines and technologies is based on throughput, dynamics and distribution, depending on the company.

The most important conveyor technologies

Conveyor logisticians are most frequently confronted with these three devices:

  • 1. Storage and retrieval machines (SRMs ) are used for goods retrieval and storage in high-rack warehouses. To do this, they move up and down in a rail guide. In order to ensure fast picks, the devices, which often weigh tons, must be accelerated at maximum speed and braked at maximum speed.
  • 2. Similar to RBG, shuttle systems are designed to enable as many picks as possible in as short a time as possible. Unlike their vertically moving "colleagues", they move on a horizontal level. They travel back and forth on rails, usually carrying goods of comparatively low weight. Shuttle systems are mostly used in the e-commerce and mail order business.
  • 3. Forklift trucks are probably the most frequently used means of transport in industry. Forklift trucks and lifting trucks in different sizes, with different load limits and functions are mostly used to move goods from racks to production and back.

Figures on conveyor technology

Conveyor logistics are subject to constant change. Nevertheless, the industry is gaining in importance. German intralogistics providers achieved a production volume of 20.8 billion euros in 2016. The forecast for 2017 is 21.4 billion euros. Conveyor technology is considered to be the second-largest specialist sector of mechanical and plant engineering. Despite changing economic and political conditions, companies in the intralogistics sector have succeeded in maximizing their earnings. The main customer base of German exporters is the rest of Europe. Around 60 % of the total volume of German intralogistics exports remains on the continent.

The German Mechanical and Plant Engineering Association has once again compiled the most important figures for intralogistics in 2016.

Conveyor technology in the era of industry 4.0

Intralogistics is based on innovative technical developments, such as modern control and computer technology. The increasing use of digitalization and networking of business processes therefore also plays an important role in conveyor logistics. However, unwanted machine stops, and failures still result in costly downtime and delays. With intelligent technology and logistics that "think" and "feel", these problems could soon be a thing of the past. Depending on the situation, smart devices could make decisions in the future and thus ensure continuous transport of the goods. Smart tags might be used to ensure the tracking and localization of all individual items in the logistics process. Predictive Maintenance could save considerable costs by detecting defective machines or components at an early stage. Intralogistics will be able to flexibly adapt. Motor management and real-time control of the value chain will become possible.

There is one problem with the implementation of smart logistics concepts in the area of interfaces. It is still difficult to connect older plants to new technology. Different programming languages of different conveyor technology elements make networking complicated and sometimes impossible. Approaches to solve interface problems are developed in API management. API stands for "Application Programming Interfaces". The Institute for Integrated Production in Hanover and the Netkops research group, funded by the Ministry of Education, have presented initial proposals for possible solutions. They develop networked, cognitive production systems and thus create self-optimizing material flows. It is also possible to use modular systems. In such configurations, individual modules can be monitored via an intelligent control centre and combined with each other as required. In this way, a flexible adaptation of the conveyor system to different business models is to be made possible.

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Challenges for the industry

Companies must find suitable answers to these four questions:

How is it possible to remain successful despite problematic demographic changes?

What it's about: The population is getting older and older. This also poses challenges for conveyor technology. In addition, fewer and fewer young specialists are opting for intralogistics.

What you can do: In the long run, the share of the working age population will decrease. Capacities that have become free can be capped by increasing the degree of automation. In order to make the sector attractive to young professionals, work and training models must be made more attractive and flexible.

How can the sustainability of conveyor systems be ensured?

What it's about: Not least as a result of the Climate Protection Plan 2050, which defines climate targets for individual sectors, the logistics industry is under pressure to work more sustainably while maintaining the profitability of companies. Limited resources must be conserved and social responsibilities must be assumed, not least for image reasons.

What you can do: Conveyor processes must be implemented in an environmentally friendly and resource-conserving manner. Saving energy is just as important as reducing costs. The marketing aspect of sustainable promotion systems is also becoming increasingly important.

How can the changing consumer behavior be met?

What it's about: The demands of customers on the service quality of mail order and department stores, industries and services are increasing. This also increases the pressure on the logistics processes running in the background. More and more complex systems have to allow faster retrieval and handling.

What you can do: The rising need for mobility must be met. This can be achieved, for example, by improving the processing of returns or improving the readiness to deliver.

How can you succeed internationally?

What it's about: The German logistics sector has to adjust to a globally intensified competitive situation between companies and locations. Increasing quantities of goods and cheaper working conditions in other countries exert pressure on companies.

What you can do: It makes sense to develop sustainable business models. Where possible, international division of labor can make companies globally competitive.

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Working in the conveyor technology business

In order to gain a foothold in conveyor technology, a degree in mechanical engineering or engineering is suitable. Training, for example as a mechanic or technician, is also possible. Well-known technically experienced universities are the TU Chemnitz, the Rheinische FH Neuss and the Haus der Technik in Essen.

After training, engineers, technicians and mechanical engineers work in sales, construction, maintenance and control. They operate, repair, plan, build and inspect the corresponding machines and conveyor lines. The industry pays good salaries. A mechanical engineer with three to five years' work experience has an average annual salary of around 45,000 euros. Depending on the size of the company and individual additional qualifications, salaries may be lower or more generous.

Employees in conveyor logistics should be constantly trained and keep an eye on new technical developments in order to be up to date with the latest technical developments. These professions also require the ability to work in a team, for example in (international) teams, and flexibility. Workers have to be able to engage in new business models.

This article was first published by MM Logistik.

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