Conveyors are a core component of all material handling or automation systems. Conveyors are used to transport, accumulate, and sort packages, boxes, or products. From receiving to order picking and fulfillment; from transportation of product to packing or shipping areas, conveyors are the freeway leading to final sorting and shipping. Rather than off-the-shelf automated conveyor solutions, an engineer-to-order approach allows customers to select conveyors based on products to be conveyed, ease of maintenance, reliability, uptime, price, speed, and design flexibility. Some of the design elements in distribution centers also include conveyor systems selection based on low energy/power consumption, low noise emission, roller technologies, and individually powered zones.
Combined with the B-to-C (business to consumer) e-commerce model where the volume of packages extends beyond FMCG (fast-moving consumer goods) and customer expectation for next day delivery, automated conveyor systems are essential in any distribution center. Often entirely mechanized and automated for high-volume traffic, conveyors can move cases and boxes, plastic totes, pallets, poly-bagged items, beverage cartons, mixed SKU pallets, and individually packaged merchandise.
The landscape for automated conveyor systems is changing as distribution changes. Distribution centers are handling more individual items than ever these days. Grocery store chains and big box retailers are receiving mixed-SKU pallets that are designed for specific aisles in a store. Retailers that once received full pallets of product once a week or month are now receiving a few cartons every day. Production lines, goods-to-person automation, picking and packing stations, and direct-to-consumer fulfillment are just some of the applications used for automated conveyor systems.
Engineer-to-Order (ETO) Conveyors Require Quality and Precision
With the average new distribution center exceeding 500,000 square feet, automated conveyor systems must cover large distances or if adopting a cellular production model, capable of fitting in tight spaces. A best practice lean manufacturing approach to designing and choosing automated conveyor systems, requires expertise and experience, not merely ordering a conveyor SKU on-line.
In repetitive manufacturing, it is possible to apply statistical process control (SPC) techniques to purchased components and manufacturing quality as well as scrap and yield. Statistical analysis is acceptable if a company mass-purchases or mass-manufactures the same product to the same standards every time. The essence of engineer-to-order (ETO) is building a unique complex product every time. There may be components that are common from one machine to another, but not in the same quantity as a repetitive manufacturer. In the ETO world, the cost of poor quality can be very high. The cost of rework to replace an item in a complex assembly and the warranty costs resulting from equipment failure can have a serious negative effect on profit margins. In an ETO environment, quality must be part of the entire process, and not just part of purchasing and manufacturing—the typical focus of a repetitive manufacturer.
Few conveyor companies consider themselves ETO manufacturers. Because ETO conveyors are never the same twice, quality problems tend to be hidden unless working with experienced custom-build manufacturers. The capital expense of conveyor automation means it has to be specified, tested, and precise every time. When that happens a rapid return on investment (ROI) is realized.
John Murdoch, CEO, Alfacon Solutions Ltd