A Holistic Approach to Automation

Integrated conveyor systems can optimize the entire production process.

By Mike Hosch, Vice President of Industrial Products at Dorner

New waves of technologies are transforming the way products are produced and packaged, and automation is redefining the overall design of many manufacturing facilities. Flexibility and connectivity are the name of the game when it comes to equipment, and that’s certainly the case for conveyors

Gaining efficiencies with a conveyor system

Conveyors have become integral components in all phases of automation, packaging and assembly. Global brands were early adopters of conveyer systems designed to integrate and optimize the entire production process. Companies of all sizes are now taking a closer look at the ways they can use integrated conveyor systems to perfect processing and packaging lines.

There are many conveyors engineered exclusively for applications focused on packaging automation, but there’s no reason to settle for a conveyor that’s being shoe-horned into your application. An effective conveyor system can do more than move product from one point to another.  A well-engineered conveyor system integrates various processing lines, and can precisely position, sort and lift items at key stages of the production and packaging process.

Designing a conveyor system

As more companies look to automate their processing and product lines, product orientation is becoming more critical. Designing an effective system begins by gaining a clear understanding of your application and production process. It is also important to consider your operating environment, space constraints and budget.  Whether you’re an OEM or integrator, a small family-owned shop or a multinational business, answering these questions can clarify your needs, priorities and expectations:

  • What do you need conveyors to do?
    • How do you envision a conveyor system integrating your lines and production processes, or other systems you’re planning to build?
    • What aspect of your production process or processing lines do you plan to automate?
  • What do you need to move or position?
    • How precisely do you need to position or sort items?
    • What are the height, weight and shape of the packaged product(s) being moved?
    • What’s the targeted rate of production?
  • Does your operating environment have any constraints or limitations?
    • Is space likely to be tight, or require conveyors to make sharp turns or go up inclines?
    • Is the machine/production line manual or automated?
    • Is the anticipated flow of production linear or oval?

Knowing this information upfront enables you to design a system that will perform well, helps define the scope of the project and allows the conveyor supplier to streamline the quotation process by gaining a more complete understanding of your needs and the application.

Selecting the right conveyor

The manufacturing environment inside facilities is much different than it was a generation ago. Automation is now a prime driver behind the way products are being produced and packaged. Many applications include both manual processes and robotic interaction. This means conveyors need to be engineered for specific applications, and address challenges in the operating environment.

Pallet system conveyors are ideal for many automation-focused applications that require exact movements and positioning of parts. They can be setup or programmed to start and stop at specific intervals to sync up with robotic interaction or other processes and modules

Pallet system conveyors typically come on different platforms to convey the pallet. The right type of pallet system will depend on the needs of the application and product. This can be a roller edge conveyor, or a dual belt configuration powered by a common drive on a flexible plastic chain belt.

Lift and rotate modules are used for applications requiring product rotation. The module allows pallets to stop, rise up off the belts and rotate 90 degrees or 180 degrees to reposition product as necessary. Other common types of lifting modules include lift-and-locate, which provides 200 pounds of lifting capacity at an accuracy of .002 inches, and lift-and-transfer, which uses a dual strand timing belt conveyor and pneumatic lift to change product orientation.

Flexible chain conveyors are able to make tight turns and operate well in an environment that has tight spaces or elevation changes. Some application designs also require product to be moved in and around equipment and machinery. Flexible chain conveyers are a popular choice for packaging lines within industrial, medical, life sciences and consumer product industries.

Precision timing belt conveyors position product in an exact spot on the conveyor at the right time, and provide the level of precision that is critical for robotic applications. This is the right choice for many packaging, industrial automation, product assembly and manufacturing applications. Servo motors power the conveyor to deliver precise alignment, at repeatable times and distances. These conveyors have indexing repeatability of plus or minus .004 inches, at a rate of 100 indexes per minute.

Understanding the application is essential

Product orientation and sorting are essential factors to consider when designing a conveyor system. That’s because automation in packaging applications relies heavily on products being positioned correctly at a specific time and location. Making this happen can be a daunting task, but you don’t have to do it alone. The first step is to evaluate your application and determine the expectations for your conveyor system. There are a number of resources available to assist you in this. The right conveyor system is out there, it’s just waiting to be designed.

About the Author

Mike Hosch is the vice president, industrial products business unit for Dorner. He can be reached at Mike.hosch@dorner.com, and you can learn more about conveyor systems online at www.dornerconveyors.com.

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