Material Handling in a Conveyor World

Written By: Austin Trusty

Even as new material handling technologies enter the market, conveyors remain a critical part of almost every automation system.

Have you ever given the textbook definition of material handling to a friend or family member?

Material handling is a field involving the transport, storage, and control of goods and products throughout the processes of manufacturing, distribution, consumption and disposal of all related materials. The focus of the material handling industry is on the methods, mechanical equipment, systems and related controls used to achieve necessary functions.
Powered Roller Conveyor in a DC

Powered Roller Conveyor

One might find the explanation above helpful in describing the material handling to someone outside the industry. Though, one may also find a blank stare and questions following the explanation. “The use of conveyors…” is a much easier explanation to grasp and not far from the truth.

The use of conveyors in material handling has been around since the early 20th century and can be known as the back bone of material handling. With their long history, conveyors are easier known as a piece of equipment that moves material from one place to another and are especially useful when applications call for the transportation of heavy or bulky material. Conveyor systems also allow quick and efficient transportation for a wide variety of materials at all shapes and sizes.

When a conveyor system begins in the concept phase, it helps to have a good understanding of what style conveyor is necessary for certain product handling applications. Here are a few items that should be considered prior to hitting the drawing board to make sure you are focusing your efforts on the correct conveyor.

  • Product dimensions
  • Product weight
  • Product throughput
  • Product variability
  • Surrounding environment
  • Power requirements
Belt conveyor in a ecommerce fulfillment center

Belt conveyor

With the industry leaning more and more toward automatic processes, conveyor is needed to assist these processes, but it’s critical to answer the considerations above before choosing which conveyor is right for you.

Below is a listing of conveyor categories and sub categories with a brief description of a likely application.

  • Gravity Conveyor – gravity, non-powered conveyor, is typically used in truck off loading, package sorting, and assembly or kitting areas. Gravity is the cheapest form of conveyor but lacks in product control.
  • Belt Conveyor – is typically used in package handling, raw material handling, and small part handling. It is effectively used for elevation change or incline/decline applications. A more common application of belt conveyor you might not notice is in the check-out line at your local grocery store.
  • Powered Roller Conveyor
    • Live Roller Conveyor – is typically used in general transport when product accumulation is not required. It is also used in package handling applications and is ideal for light- to medium-product loads.
    • Minimum Pressure Conveyor – is used in short sections of accumulation, general transport of product, and is ideal for medium to light loads such as package handling applications.
    • Zero Pressure Conveyor – is commonly found in distribution centers where there is a wide variety of product width and weight. Applications include buffering of product prior to sortation, packaging, kitting, or shipping areas. It is also ideal for picking areas and palletizing areas. This conveyor is used in high throughput systems.
Gravity conveyor for outbound shipping

Gravity conveyor

Pallet Conveyor

  • Drag Chain – is typically used for handling extremely heavy loads, special pallet configurations, and extremely low- to high-temperature areas.
  • Roller – Roller pallet conveyor is typically used for handling extremely heavy loads and is ideal for accumulation zones in pack out areas.
  • Overhead Conveyor – is typically used in paint and finishing lines, trash removal, food packing, and assembly lines. These are some of the oldest conveyors still used in the industry today because they are very reliable and require little maintenance.
  • Table Top Chain – is used in accumulation, package handling, filling, labeling, and wash-down applications.
  • Magnetic Slide Conveyor – is used in metal stamping, chip removal, and small part transport application.
  • There are many types of material handling technologies out there, but no matter what automation system you install, there will more than likely be conveyor to support the efforts. Do your due diligence or consult with an industry expert to ensure you’re choosing the right conveyor  type for your application. By selecting the right conveyors, you’ll ensure your entire manufacturing or distribution facility runs at peak performance.

    Austin Trusty is a Field Applications Engineer working out of Bastian Solutions’ Indianapolis office. He has been with the company since 2012.

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