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Choosing The Right Conveyor System

Fri, 11/07/2008 - 10:30am
John Kuhn and Tim Kraus, Conveyor Product Managers, FKI Logistex North America

Installing automated conveyor systems can dramatically improve the productivity of a small- to mid-sized distribution center (DC). But, as with any major capital improvement, it is imperative to understand the many facets of the decision to purchase a conveyor system. Every DC and material handing project is different, so it is important to prioritize what aspects of a conveyor purchase and system are vital to your needs.

Among the issues to analyze when deciding on a particular conveyor solution are initial cost, total cost of ownership (TCO), maintenance needs, noise levels, energy consumption, throughputs, and who will implement your conveyor project. For a first-time conveyor purchaser, this can be a daunting task.

The first and perhaps most important step in evaluating the purchase of a system is determining its TCO. A TCO analysis takes the purchase beyond the initial capital investment and installation to look at your acquisition of new machinery in a very holistic sense.

Questions that come up during a TCO analysis may include:

  • How will energy costs affect the long-term return on investment?
  • What are the preventative maintenance requirements?
  • What is the expected lifetime of the equipment?
  • What are your package dimensions and weights now and in the future?
  • What fits your budget now and on an ongoing basis?

Answering these and other related questions helps you evaluate whether the long-term purchase of a conveyor system is the right one and also help you choose from specific proposals.

Equipment Selection

Many hard-to-quantify considerations also go into specifying a conveyor system for your DC. For instance, will a new system create too much noise for your DC staff? The type of conveyor you select will determine the noise levels generated during use. Careful equipment selection is critical to meet noise level requirements.

Another consideration relates to the maintenance required by a particular system and the environment in which your conveyor will be used. How often will maintenance personnel have to service your system? Does your DC produce, house, manufacture or handle caustic materials that can do harm to a conveyor system? What level of spare parts will you be required to stock? What level of expertise will be required of your maintenance staff?

Design And Throughput

An important calculation to complete when considering a conveyor system is determining what system throughput you need. Examining throughput ultimately determines what speed your system needs to achieve, which affects the cost per foot of a stretch of conveyor. While a low-throughput system can run between 50 and 150 cases per minute (CPM), a high-end conveyor can run at sustained throughput levels of 300 CPM or more. Conveyor technology fundamentally changes at a throughput level of roughly 200 CPM, so it is important to understand your throughput requirements.

Portability and modularity are also important aspects of a conveyor system’s design. If your business model is likely to change the DC’s configuration in the next few years or months, then the system will require a reinstallation. In that case, you may want to think about modular conveyor.

Entirely modular conveyors and can be taken apart and rearranged with much less work than older systems. Modular conveyor systems also require less implementation and manufacturing time to get manufactured and into production at a DC.

Ease of repair and access to replacement parts are also key -- You don’t want to buy a system that is overly difficult to access or repair. You should make sure you have adequate and quick access to replacement parts; repairs will eventually be needed. Additionally, selecting a manufacturer who produces conveyor equipment with shared components across product lines can drastically cut the number of spare parts you will need to stock.

What’s Your Budget?

The final consideration before making a decision is to look at your budget. How much are you willing to spend on the total package? A traditional high-voltage, motor-driven conveyor can be up to 50 percent less expensive than a motorized roller conveyor (dependent on length and system design), so that may be the way to go. Belt conveyors can be even cheaper.

New to the conveyor arena is 24-volt motorized roller conveyor. These conveyors are inherently safer because they require no high-voltage drops and the motors can be stopped with a hand-shake grip. They are also quieter, more energy-efficient, easier to maintain, and do not require expensive control panels.

Looking At Long Term

In the long term, investing in the best conveyor technology you can afford is generally the best choice. What you ship today may not be the same tomorrow. Package sizes and shapes can change in the future, and building scalability into a conveyor purchase can mean the difference between a system that grows with you and one that needs to be ripped out and replaced.

First, do your homework. Reading all the white papers, case studies, and articles you can find on DC conveyor systems will help you form your own ideas about what decision to make. A material handling integrator can also make this decision a lot easier. Many companies can sell you conveyor, but an experienced integrator can ensure you have the right conveyor system and the right auxiliary products to go with it.  A good material handling integrator can ensure your conveyor implementation stays on track from start to launch, and is easily scaleable for years to come.

FKI Logistex is a global provider of automated material handling solutions for manufacturing operations and warehouse and distribution facilities. For more information, visit http://www.fkilogistex.com

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