Alfacon Solutions Defines Adaptive Conveying

Alfacon has taken a leadership role in defining adaptive conveying

Recognizing that one conveyor solution will not work for everyone, the company coined the phrase, adaptive conveying. The hallmarks of adaptive conveying include versatility.

Versatility of Adaptive Conveying

These adaptive conveying solutions must have the ability to handle a large range of products, the ability to easily operate on different input voltages, and possess the ability for an AGV (Automated Guided Vehicle) to change conveying appliances on the fly to accomplish different tasks.

adaptive conveying

Reconfigurability of Adaptive Conveying

Adaptive conveying must be reconfigurable with the ability to adjust (on the fly) heights as well as line reconfiguration. Due to different models, especially those required in e-commerce, 3PLs (Third Party Logistics), DCs (Distribution Centers), and warehouses, adaptive conveying must include line repurposing.

IIoT, Industry 4.0, and Smart Integration Central to Adaptive Conveying

A conversation about adaptive conveying must include IIoT (Industrial Internet of Things). With millions of sensors on every plant floor the ability for conveying solutions to utilize Industry 4.0 big data is the capacity for smart, integrated, programmable, and connected solutions. These data make the technology self-aware, self-adjusting, and fully integrated with AGV’s and external systems.

Alfacon Solutions Reviews the Benefits of Adaptive Conveying

The cost of space, particularly warehouse and DC (Distribution Center) space, is at its highest level ever.

U.S. and Canada shippers looking to secure more warehouse and distribution space over the coming years should expect to pay more and have fewer choices. National vacancy rates thus far in 2018 hit an 18-year low and average rental rates are up 15 percent from a year ago in the hottest markets. The national average asking rental price in the first quarter was $5.75 per square foot. Rental prices have increased steadily each quarter from $4.62 per square foot in the first quarter of 2015.

Industrial real estate rates near the three largest U.S. ports — Long Beach, Los Angeles and New York and New Jersey — rose at least 10 percent year-over-year in 2018. Nationwide, there’s simply little to no industrial product available and the market demand is huge, posing unique challenges and putting greater emphasis on wise use of existing space via adaptive conveying.

The dearth of available industrial space exists even though the construction and delivery of new properties is accelerating. Construction pipeline continues to grow, with a 39 percent increase over the year in build-to-suit properties. An estimated 300+ million square feet of new industrial space are slated for delivery nationwide in the coming months, which is a 12-year high. By 2019, almost 1.5 billion square feet of space will have been delivered over the previous five years.

Every sector of warehouse and logistics is contributing to the surging demand for industrial space, but e-commerce is contributing the most. The resounding strength of industrial tenant demand, paired with the toughest market conditions ever experienced in the sector, drives rental growth.

Adaptive conveying maximizes space, scalability, and prepares for the future

Because adaptive conveying maximizes the use of space at a time when space is at a premium, the ability to use different line configuration based on shift, day of the week, time of the year is especially helpful. Because it also provides scalability, adaptive conveying modularity allows systems to be expanded or retracted very easily.

Adaptive conveying prepares for the future of conveying technology as modular systems allow new technology to be integrated easily into existing systems a small piece at a time while minimizing maintenance costs. Self-aware systems can provide maintenance warnings as well as in some cases make necessary adjustments to minimize maintenance and maximize productivity.

vertical conveyors

Adaptive Conveying and AGV Appliances

More than a decade ago, Assembly magazine postulated that there was a battle between AGVs (Automated Guided Vehicles) and conveys. Now we know better. The two are not adversarial options, but rather cooperative elements in adaptive conveying. The argument was to question whether conveyors still make sense in the lean, flexible manufacturing, and materials handling world. There was, and still is, a strong advocacy for AGVs as a better alternative for material handling, depending on the specific application.

For 105 years conveyors have been a common sight in manufacturing plants and on April 1, 1913, the first moving assembly line for a large-scale manufacturing application began to operate at the Ford Motor Co. plant in Highland Park, MI. Facilities with extensive conveyor systems no longer have production space chopped up by the conveyor solutions; no longer are conveyors an impediment to travelling through the plant. The limits of the past decade no longer apply and the movement to fork truck free was the shift, not the conveyor solution.

Alfacon Solutions works with some of the leading AGV companies globally building custom appliances that allow the value proposition of an AGV to capture a much faster ROI. It was difficult to calculate when plant layout and designed forced operators to work around the conveyor system. Lean manufacturing and continuous improvement activities have been carefully designed with adaptive conveying in mind; significant inventory is not aligned on the conveyor, because AGVs can handle small loads more frequently, allowing the conveyors’ power consumption to be used on an as-needed basis. AGVs allow moving product from point A to point B with a flexibility that can adjust easily to changes and with Alfacon’s adaptive conveying model, routes can be redefined when the need arises without the infrastructure changes formerly required by conveyors. These AGV appliances work in consort with the AGVs offering faster and more intuitive ways of adapting an existing system to new business rules.

Conveyors will continue to play an important role in manufacturing. In fact, smaller and more modular conveyors have created new options in flexibility. Integrated intelligence and control in the assembly process have also allowed for a higher level of automation than previously existed. Many plant floors today typically have more conveyors that are shorter and feature more sophisticated controls than their predecessors. In addition, high-efficiency motors that deliver variable speeds and constant torques help today’s generation of conveyors be much more flexible than in the past.

The widespread use of extruded aluminum structural profiles has also spurred the use of modular conveyors. They allow engineers to bolt-together components that can be reconfigured in response to changes in product mix or production volume. Alfacon Solutions fully utilizes these best practices by offering modular, reconfigurable conveyors which allow for layout changes.

When making automation decisions, the answer will be both AGVs or conveyors, because manufacturing engineers must carefully consider both cost and flexibility. Alfacon Solutions helps to figure out how to reduce materials conveyance in conjunction with AGVs. An AGV conveying appliance is just another new innovation part of leadership in adaptive conveying.

Customer Product Adaptive Conveying Made Compatible with AGVs

One of the great benefits of AGVs (Automated Guided Vehicles) is the ability to move product, often cumbersome product, throughout a plant, a loading bay, and on to a truck without making endless runs with a fork truck. Difficult to convey items such as tires can be transported through a plant using customizable conveying appliances. These customized AGV appliances are gravity and/or powered solutions and on-board electronics make devices compatible with multiple manufacturers of AGVs. The solution can also be applied to custom product “trailers.”

Adaptive conveying improves many aspects of an operation through automation as AGVs are utilized to improve daily operations. AGV systems can be implemented in a manufacturing operation without having to add devices in or on the facility’s floor. Using triangulation, the AGVs are guided through the facility to perform designated tasks, avoiding damage to the building, the product, or the equipment. AGV systems also increase the safety of the work environment. Using AGV systems with palletizing systems allow complete “end-of-line” automation, resulting in cost savings and significant improvements in production management. Adaptive conveying solutions used in conjunction with AGVs offers distinct advantages including the aforementioned safer work environment. The rapid ROI is captured with work optimization productivity, throughput, and efficiencies.

Avoid building and equipment damage is a hallmark of the Alfacon AGV appliances while still providing real-time information/location of the products, ease of installation, and greater flexibility to increase speed by adding other vehicles.

The Global Growth Trajectory of AGVs and Adaptive Conveying Appliances

Global AGV sales surged by 48.8 percent from a year earlier to more than 30,000 units thanks to favorable policies including industry 4.0 and intelligent automation and more use of AGVs for e-commerce.

Production logistics including automobile, tire, and home appliance manufacturing still has the largest and steady demand for AGVs but the demand for higher requirements on intelligent automation of AGV products is changing the paradigm. Warehousing logistics like e-commerce are witnessing a soaring demand for AGVs, occupying roughly 50 percent of the AGV and AGV appliances by 2021.

Interestingly in global markets, particularly China, restricted by technology, AGC (Automated Guided Carts) are in the majority in Chinese AGV market, making up around 63 percent in 2018; AGVs with heavy load and linkage will be key products in China’s AGV industry layout, according to the Development Plan for China Robotics Industry.

Adaptive Conveying and Robotic AGV Applications

Despite all the fear-mongering about how robots will take over jobs, facts are clear. With more than six million jobs currently available in the industrial and distribution sectors, there simply are not enough workers to fill those jobs.

The highly repetitive nature of most A to B plant floor product transfers make the functionality of a robot performing that task both logical and optimal. Because robots allow for precise pick, place, and sorting between multiple workstations and allow for maximized equipment utilization by moving equipment between lines during downtime, these clever machines manage multiple non-continuous processes and tasks with one piece of equipment.

Some of the adaptive conveying solutions from Alfacon not only interface with these robotic AGVs (Automated Guided Vehicles) but also with Advanced Storage and Retrieval Systems (AS/RS). Equipped with sensors these AGV appliances also offer advanced maintenance and preventative maintenance data. Now actionable, the robot can self-correct 24/7. Combined with automated truck loading and unloading the entire material flow is managed seamlessly. Adaptive conveying provides production logistics solutions for durable goods manufacturing and warehousing applications, ranging from small specialty product manufacturing companies to large global corporations, where low, medium and high-volume production rates are supported.

Alfacon works with robotics, logistics, and AGV manufacturers to engineer solutions which accommodate specific production environment needs. The result is an effective use of floor space, just-in-time delivery, balancing/sequencing of material flow, lean, scalability, quality, ergonomics, and uptime. Typical solutions are designed to optimize the processes involved with inbound receiving, materials storage, work-in-process staging, kitting, and finished inventory storage.

These processes are equally helpful in outbound logistics with the ability to handle a variety of load types such as cartons, totes, bins, tubs, and pallets. Unlike off-the-shelf conveyor solutions, an industrial engineering approach to the development of each system solution reveals the best-practice process improvement engineering expertise.

Adaptive conveying is specifically designed for high-performance solutions for manufacturing and distribution operations, provides real-time control, visibility, and operational insight. The anguish about robots is not warranted. Having actionable data and informed best-practices is the role of robots.

Conveyor Applications Define the Changing Role of Adaptive Conveying

Conveying and sorting were static functions for a very long time. The need for adaptive conveying is being driven by function, variety, and “The Amazon Impact.”

Chain driven live roller (CDLR) conveyors are generally used to transport pallets and are often integrated with chain transfers to transfer products at a 90° angle. CDLR conveyors can be designed with a variety of roller sizes depending on the conveying pallet size and weight. Multiple drives can be added to accumulate large pallets effectively. Benefits of CDLR conveyors include heavy duty design which provides years of trouble-free service; to accommodate adaptive conveying, a motorized drive roller option allows for low top of roller height which can be integrated with drag chain transfers. CDLR conveyors require no compressed air and a drive motor which reduces total cost. These reliable components translate to lower maintenance.

CP cart

Belt driven live roller (BDLR) conveyors are different because the bed rollers contact a flat driving belt on the underside which creates a friction drive between the belt and the rollers. Minimum (and zero) pressure accumulations are a major benefit for using BDLR. When a curve is needed, a V-belt is used to power the bed rollers. The pop-out friction driven rollers provide a better industrial condition when working around the conveyors vs. “fixed in place” rollers. Because the top of the rollers can be physically above the side frames, BDLR conveyors are capable of adaptive conveying by handling products wider than the BF (between frame) of the conveyor. The belt is normally powered using a motor/reducer drive package.

A belt conveyor system is one of the most adaptive conveyor systems. A belt conveyor system consists of two or more pulleys (sometimes referred to as drums), with an endless loop of carrying medium—the conveyor belt—that rotates about them. One or both pulleys are powered, moving the belt and the material on the belt forward. The powered pulley is called the drive pulley while the unpowered pulley is called the idler pulley. The main industrial class of belt conveyors are used in material handling such as those moving boxes along inside a factory. In combination with computer-controlled pallet handling equipment these conveyors allow for more efficient retail, wholesale, and manufacturing distribution. It is considered a labor-saving system that allows large volumes to move rapidly through a process, allowing companies to ship or receive higher volumes with smaller storage space and with less labor expense.

main conveyor parts

Accumulation conveyors are custom designed to hold the product in place, allowing safe accumulation of the product or packaging until release is required. Custom speeds and drive pressure are matched to production requirements, allowing for efficient loading, sorting, and packaging. The variations of accumulation conveying solutions include rotary, single flow, bi-flow, serpentine, and continuous motion accumulation tables.

The term “pop-up transfer” refers to the action of lifting an item or container vertically then conveying it on a 90° angle to a subsequent conveyor.

Accumulation conveyor

Pop-up transfer conveyor systems offer smooth transition and seamless integration, making them easy to maintain. Transfer solutions are available in various construction types as well as variable speeds, including non-contact product spacing. Pop-up transfers are commonly used in the food and beverage industries but have been instrumental in the automotive, medical device, and industrial applications as well.

Manual sort lines conveyors must be reconfigurable based on shift, time of year, there is an inherent requirement for common equipment across different sized facilities. Scalability and the ability to adjust for peak periods, particularly holiday seasonality, require non-stop repurposing of manual sort lines.

Regularly there are multiple types of conveying solutions needed; regularly the various uses of these conveyor systems require a flexibility and adaptability rather than a single and static usage.

Sort line conveyors

Adaptive Conveying Defines Automated Sort Lines

Adaptive conveying defines automated sort lines because the need for reconfigurable usage based on shift, time of year is not static. The ability to use and reuse common equipment across different sized facilities, along with the ability to adjust for peak periods, add and remove sort lanes, allows for growth and ease of expansion.

Ultimately the goal is to increase shipping accuracy and efficiency with sortation systems. Companies which formerly shipped only pallets are now requiring adaptive conveying to meet the growing demand for smaller order sizes, increased shipping accuracy, and more frequent shipments while improving productivity and throughput in 3PL (Third Party Logistics), DCs (Distribution Centers), and warehouses.

Sortation is an optimal solution for separating products from in-feed conveyor lines to shipping lanes, palletizing operations, packing stations, and other fast-changing sortation applications. These systems are versatile and can sort a wide range of product sizes and weights to multiple divert lanes.

The process of fulfilling an order can have many levels of automation which must adaptively address a broad range of conveyors and sortation technologies. From off-the-shelf solutions to engineer-to-order fulfillment solutions, Alfacon Solutions brings extensive technologies by function. Alfacon can build sorting conveyors in many different orientations, depending on the layout requirements. The company also builds adaptive conveying sorting solutions for quality control inspection stations into other types of conveyors, if only a small section is needed, and a dedicated sorting conveyor is not feasible.

Changing consumer expectations and demand for greater efficiency, economy, and productivity present new challenges and opportunities in warehouse automation. E-commerce is driving this innovation change as well as retail demand for more frequent store replenishment, and consumer expectations for faster fulfillment. Variable brick-and-mortar footprints require optimization of on-hand inventory. 3PLs and DCs become an extension of the store shelf—and must respond in kind. This all translates to adaptive conveying. Inventory navigation demands supply turns and cross-belt sortation has advanced over the past several years, providing the higher throughputs, accuracy, and smaller footprints required in today’s modern DC.

There is an ever-changing pursuit of cost-effective solutions for parcel handling, receiving, and shipping operations. Due to relatively small order sizes—typically three items per order—ecommerce and retail replenishment orders often lend themselves to using bags, as opposed to cartons, as the packaging material. Handling bags instead of cartons requires a different conveying and sorting solution.

Smart Systems in Adaptive Conveying with IIoT

Putting 24/7 lights-out conveying aside for a moment, nothing impacts adaptive conveying more than preventative maintenance. When sensors can automatically detect product jams and automatically detect belt slippage, immediate corrective action is possible without downtime. A stoppage, diagnosis, and repair can deeply impact OEE (Overall Equipment Effectiveness) data. When a sensor detects a failing bearing, motors, and drives, maintenance notifications are sent with instructions for urgent or anticipated action required. This automation in the age of IIoT (Industrial Internet of Things) provides plug-and-play wireless vibration sensor and transmitter to instrument rotating machines and other assets for predictive maintenance. By providing continuous asset monitoring, the support of hundreds (even thousands) of sensors is accomplished without compromising enterprise-level security.

Asset Reliability & Optimization

Predictive maintenance and asset performance means that adaptive conveying is designed to securely ingest sensor data, create asset digital twins, track failure modes, and use analytics to provide real-time asset insights. This is not conceptual; it is pragmatic and usable data. Combined with sensors adaptive conveying solutions make automatic adjustments to belt and chain tension, adjust speeds automatically based on product size, weight, and sort requirements.

production process

The Growing Role of IIoT Parallels Adaptive Conveying

The marketing research division of TR Cutler, Inc. recently completed an extensive study which revealed that 88 percent of industrial organizations are currently adopting IIoT solutions and 94 percent believe those solutions are very or extremely effective. Additionally, 95 percent believe that IIoT has a significant or tremendous impact on their industry. A much smaller number (38 percent) are automating the application of insights derived from analytics. The new utilization of adaptive conveying is expected to change dramatically over the next 18 months.

The IIoT study was conducted in the United States and Canada in June 2018 and reached more than 400 respondents at companies with annual revenues more than $25 million. Participants were evenly divided among Manufacturing and Material Handling. Titles covered a wide spectrum of senior-level personnel with operational responsibilities, most of whom had spent an average of ten years in their organizations.

Since the number one reason cited for IIoT adoption is cost reduction these data metrics can be measured against the status quo. The cost of inaction is quantifiable in downtime, maintenance costs, lost productivity, and poor throughput. More than 90 percent of IIoT adopters cite device-health as the primary reason for IIoT adoption followed by logistics (77 percent), reducing operating costs (34 percent) and increasing production volume (28 percent).

Alfacon Solutions (https://alfaconsolutions.com) is a leading custom material handling solutions company providing custom design, engineering, manufacturing and installation support for its customer base of small manufacturers to Fortune 500 companies. Its products include lifting equipment, package and pallet handling conveyors, sortation systems, truck loaders, extendable and vertical conveyors, belt and roller conveyor systems and AGV appliances.

View Alfacon Solutions’ seminar presentation, “Adaptive Conveying”, presented at the 2018 MODEX in Atlantic, GA.

John Murdoch
John Murdoch is CEO of Alfacon Solutions Ltd., based in Canada. Murdoch is a thought-leader in both the manufacturing and materials handling sectors. Leveraging more than a quarter century of experience, Murdoch brings a unique perspective to engineered material handling solutions and the role of automation. Murdoch can be reached at john.murdoch@AlfaconSolutions.com.