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By Marisa Zocco
From the production floor to the packaging line, thousands of pieces must come together to make a manufacturing facility work. Although individual plants have unique processes and distinctive stumbling blocks to overcome, any manufacturer is susceptible to common issues that can bring production to a halt.
A common piece of plant equipment is a conveyor, and although it might seem that all conveyors are created equal, many plants have learned that reconfigurable modular conveyor systems have a dramatic effect on maintaining tight production schedules and engineering flexible production lines.
“These modular conveyor systems use a positive sprocket drive and tracking with the plastic link-style belting that eliminates slippage and edge damage.”- Marisa Zocco
“You don’t think much of a simple conveyor unless it’s costing you and producing inefficiencies, by breaking down, not working correctly or it’s contaminating the product,” says Bill Padgett, vice president of Manufacturing at Custom Bottle, Naugatuck, Conn. “In getting a product to the packaging line, there are so many things you can have problems with, so many different pieces of equipment, and the last thing you want to spend time on is what should be one of the most simple things out there and that is a conveyor.”
When Padgett joined Custom Bottle, a leading extrusion blow molder that provides a broad line of plastic bottles for the pharmaceutical, cosmetic and personal care industries, a primary goal was to enhance production efficiency by adding robotics and other automation equipment. In the beginning, Padgett says, “All I ever heard about in meetings were problems with the conveyors - problems with the rollers, problems with the belts coming off track, problems with the fibers from the belts contaminating the product.”
Standard conveyors and belts can be difficult to maintain and require frequent belt alignment, routine belt replacement, and lubrication of rollers and other components. As belts stretch, they become misaligned and rub against a conveyor part, which releases small fibers.
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“This is a common problem in our industry,” says Padgett. “If the belt moves just a little bit, these fibers get onto the belt and onto your product or even into your resin stream and neither one is good.”
Even with extensive belt tensioning and maintenance, these fibers, often too small to see, can break loose and contaminate the product. Static electricity causes the fibers to stick to the outside of the bottles and when one goes to the printing line, the fibers under the ink cause a printing void. Still worse is when fibers get inside the bottles and contaminate the product. This can cause an entire truckload of product to be rejected.
Padgett, who has built plants from the ground up and seen a multitude of equipment over the years, believes that the answer to making a consistently profitable product is to get the engineering aspect right the first time.
“If you don’t, the customer might still get the product they expected in the end but, on the engineering side, if you don’t do it right, it will cost you more to produce than you realize,” he says.
According to Padgett, getting the engineering right is to eliminate as many down-the-road flaws that can be conceived and by adding as many redundancies in the equipment as possible, “because at the end of the day, what manufacturers really sell is machine time - if the machines aren’t running, manufacturers aren’t making money.”
Exasperated with excessive maintenance time for the plant’s old conveyors, Padgett sought out Muskegon, Mich.-based Dynamic Conveyor Corp. (www.dynamicconveyor.com), manufacturer of maintenance-free reconfigurable DynaCon conveyors.
Based on a “snap-in-place” concept of high-impact, interchangeable plastic modules, accessories and components, reconfigurable modular conveyor systems offer the flexibility and ease of reconfiguration to improve production or packaging flow and to rapidly modify material handling schemes to handle more work.
The modular conveyor systems use a positive sprocket drive and tracking with plastic link-style belting that eliminates slippage and edge damage. “With our old conveyors, you would have to adjust the rollers to keep them on track, but the way DynaCons are made, there is no real tracking with them. Because they are self aligning, they don’t go off-track,” says Padgett.
Before switching the entire operation over to the new conveyor system, which took approximately two years, excessive maintenance time was dedicated to the conveyors. Since replacing their old conveyors, Padgett says, “maintenance time for the conveyors has been reduced by 90%.”
“Every now and again,” he admits “human error plays a factor or things get jammed and a piece of the belt might get damaged and need replacing, but you only have to replace one component versus having to buy an entire belt. We can do that in a half an hour with minimal cost.”
Custom Bottle spent $600 to $700 to replace a single belt on the old conveyors. “I’ve seen other companies try to save $1,000 when buying a conveyor system, and it doesn’t make sense because they’ll spend that thousand with maintenance and such in the first year and every year after that, or even more, because the conveyors won’t hold up.”
The self-aligning modular plastic belting that reduced Custom Bottle’s maintenance costs by 95% and eliminated fiber contamination is what attracted Padgett to the system initially; however, he quickly discovered that this system offered the possibility of redundancy in a conveyor system, as well as the ability to change the configuration when needed.
“A few years back, as we were automating our processes, the ergonomics of the plant changed frequently in terms of how far something had to be conveyed and such, but because the pieces of these conveyors are interchangeable, instead of going out and buying a new conveyor, I just added a section or two or took out a section or two.”
Because of their interchangeability, reconfigurable DynaCon modular conveyor systems allow manufacturers to engineer redundant conveyor systems that reduce spare parts inventory by choosing components that are the same width and use the same drives as other lines. “What I’ve found is that I don’t need as many extra conveyors. I have one drive motor that fits most of my conveyors and that’s because I engineered it that way,” says Padgett. “If I happen to have a conveyor down from some mishap, I can steal a component from another line.”
“These DynaCons are so user-friendly,” he says. “We put together full conveyor systems in an hour and changing out a piece is even faster than that. I haven’t found anything out there that is as user-friendly, especially for the cost.”