Expert Insight: Sorting it Out
By Cliff Holste
Date: June 9, 2010

Logistics News: Employees Are Your First Line Of Defense For Minimizing Maintenance Problems

Conveyor Systems That Run Smoothly Consume Less Energy and Yield More Throughput

Your employees depend on their cars for their livelihood - driving back and forth to work and a host of other important transportation needs. When there is breakdown it is often the result of neglect. The lesson learned is that along with ownership comes responsibility for upkeep. Proper operation and routine maintenance are understood to be basic requirements for dependable service. And, most drivers know that lots of short trips around the neighborhood increases wear and tear on critical components (engine, transmission, brakes, tires, etc.), reducing the service life of the vehicle and increasing operating cost (lower gas mileage).


The conveyors and associated material handling systems that transport products through your facility, benefit from similar consideration. Unfortunately, many companies (including their employees) don’t give much thought to the conveyors they use every day until there’s a breakdown. Then production stops, employees are idle, shipments are late, customers are upset, and conveyors become a major issue.

Using Conveyor In Ways It Wasn’t Intended

A major cause of conveyor system irregularities and unnecessary maintenance cost is failure to train employees on the proper use of the conveyor equipment. Improper use of conveyor contributes to poor performance. This can happen when a need arises and the conveyor system is pressed into service without understanding its capabilities.


One of the most common examples is using the conveyor to transport items that are normally regarded as non-conveyable based on size, weight, and configuration, including damaged containers, and containers that have protruding parts or loose flaps/straps. When this happens, there is excessive stress and wear on the entire conveyor system. The result can cause interruption in flow due to jams, and increased risk of injury.


Another common example of improper use occurs in picking operations. When the pick belt stops, often pickers will continue to pick and place cartons/totes onto the dead conveyor belt. There are at least two major problems with this practice that can potentially damage the conveyor equipment, increase operating cost, and lowering system throughput.


First – pick belts are not designed to be started with a fully loaded belt. Even though the static conveyor bed sections, and floor supports are designed for a fully loaded condition; the practice over time will cause permanent damage to critical components of the drive train contributing to premature failure of the conveyor’s power unit and conveying belt. This is true regardless of whether the conveyor is roller bed or slider bed construction.


Second – when the downstream accumulation conveyor receives a large slug of cases from picking, the slug proceeds past a full line sensor, “blocking” the sensor long enough to cause a false signal to be transmitted to the control system. The control system “thinks” the accumulation conveyor is full, and signals the in-feed conveyors (from picking) to prematurely shutdown. This will then setup an intermittent start/stop sequence. Once in this mode, the system is consuming considerably more power (kilowatts of electricity) as a result of the repeated starting and stopping, and at the same time handling fewer cases per minute.

If it’s not Broken – Don’t Fix it?

Regular inspections help familiarize employees who use and depend on the conveyors to understand the equipment they are using and take ownership of its care. Conversely, lack of regular inspections and routine maintenance contribute to poor system performance and operational problems. It’s fair to say then that by doing routine inspections and maintenance, unexpected costly repairs can be avoided.


A good example would be spotting a frayed belt or noticing that a belt lacing is coming apart. These are red flags. They indicate that costly repairs will be needed in the near future – probably at a critical time.


By knowing how to spot issues, employees become the first line of defense for minimizing problems and reducing costs. Waiting to make repairs until a conveying system breaks down is a costly mistake.

Final Thoughts

Of course, in every facility, wherever equipment is installed, there will be blind spots and places that are difficult to get to. These areas are breeding grounds for expensive repairs and operational issues. They are easy to ignore. But understand that by doing so, you are creating an emergency waiting to happen.

Agree or disagree with Holste's perspective? What would you add? Let us know your thoughts for publication in the SCDigest newsletter Feedback section, and on the website. Upon request, comments will be posted with the respondent's name or company withheld.

You can also contact Holste directly to discuss your material handling or distribution challenges at the Feedback button below.

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profile About the Author
Cliff Holste is Supply Chain Digest's Material Handling Editor. With more than 30 years experience in designing and implementing material handling and order picking systems in distribution, Holste has worked with dozens of large and smaller companies to improve distribution performance.
Visit SCDigest's New Distribution Digest web page for the best in distribution management and material handling news and insight.

Holste Says:

By knowing how to spot issues, employees become the first line of defense for minimizing problems and reducing costs.

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