Conveyor belts: which system meets your production line needs?

Conveyor belts have been used to transport material from point A to point B since 1892. However, until recently they were unreliable and prone to breaking down or wearing out, though still more effective than continuing to use manual labour to transport goods around a production plant.

The advent of industry 4.0 and the Industrial Internet of things (IIoT) technologies has reinvigorated conveyor belts by allowing them to develop and evolve. There are now an ever-growing variety of conveyor systems each with their own strengths and weaknesses.

Conventional conveyor belts
The most conventional conveyor belt used in the food and beverage industry is made up of two key components: a belt and motor. This simple method can transport most solids and is highly customisable. Overall, there are more than 15 different varieties of traditional belt, such as bucket, trough and magnetic.

The variations don’t stop there, because there are more ways to modify belts. For example, belts can be divided into multiple cross sections, each travelling at a different speed allowing operations managers to appropriately balance the belt. In other cases, variable speed motors alloaw the belt to speed up and slow down at different points optimising energy efficiency and reducing energy costs.

Then there were other weaknesses. For example, belts often have to be replaced due to fraying. This can be disastrous for food and beverage manufacturers as elements of the belt can contaminate the product, resulting in a product recall and downtime if the problem has not been identified sooner. With more plants now working 24/7, unless proper care is taken then there is a chance of motor failure too, which can result in product build up and further downtime.

Because few parts are needed, it has been easy to boost the performance of conveyor belts by using IIoT devices such as smart sensors. For example, when ABB Ability smart sensors have been used to monitor motors, customers have seen a drop in operational costs by up to 30 per cent while commissioning costs of new lines have been reduced by 50 per cent.

Vibrating conveyor belts
Vibrating Conveyors, as the name implies, use rotary, or linear vibration to convey material along the medium. They are best use for moving dry, bulk materials that are durable, such as corn, gravel and coal.

One of the main benefits of a vibrating column is its vertical potential. Unlike traditional belts, vibrating conveyors can lift materials up in relatively compact space. This is because the medium is moulded into a screw shape, allowing for materials to travel up the medium.

Due to fewer parts being required, and the fact that the medium can be made of a sturdier material, in order to resist the vibrations, vibrating conveyors are said to require less maintenance on average than their counterparts. They also require fewer motors than traditional conveyor belts, but this also means that monitoring and maintaining the motor in question is important.

Another important factor for vibrating conveyors is their bearings. Due to the intensity of the vibrations, the state of bearings can deteriorate faster than normal. For this reason ABB not only provides bearings specifically made for vibration applications, but they are also custom made to be monitored by ABB Ability smart sensors.

Air conveyor belts
Air or pneumatic conveyor systems are great for moving easily damaged items, like aluminium cans or empty plastic bottles, at speeds greater than traditional conveyors. There is a reason that this method of conveyor is used in a range of soft drink production systems, most famously Coca-Cola.

This does not mean, however, that the system cannot move more traditional materials that have irregular shapes. Coal and other mined materials come in a variety of sizes and can fracture into highly flammable dusts. Using air conveyors with containment tubes can keep the coal dust contained.

Compared to other systems, air conveyors have a definite speed advantage. However, due to their use of suction or air pressure differentials, they are more delicate systems and require higher levels of maintenance. For example, in the case of a system that uses tubing, these can become clogged creating a blockage that will back log the entire system, However, those that use air pressure differential to transport goods are vulnerable because if one motor fails then the objects may not have enough speed to reach the next motor, causing the system to fail.

Overall, each one of these conveyor systems has its individual strengths that can bolster opportunities in their specific use cases. The decision on which style of conveyor will come down to the material that needs to be moved, the space available, the properties of the material and the speed requirement of the production system. A lot of time has passed since the industrial revolution, which means many new forms of conveying have come into play. The variety is out there – all that is left is to decide which one is for you.