By Thomas Betts
Even though they depend on them, many companies don't give much thought to conveyor systems--until there's a breakdown. Then, a conveyor becomes a major issue--production stops, employees are idle, shipments are late, customers are upset and the company's credibility is undermined.
Taken for granted and often ignored, a conveyor system turns out to be a critical link in a company's distribution system. How many times have I heard someone say, "When can you get this thing fixed? We have orders piling up all over the place. The boss is on our backs."
It's always the seemingly small things--like a conveyor breakdown--that raise havoc, escalate costs and reduce profits. To describe it this way may seem overly dramatic until you taken dozens of calls from desperate managers with a down production line.
Here are 12 of the most common material handling system conveyor maintenance mistakes and how to avoid them:
1. Lack of regular inspections. In most manufacturing operations, it's the production equipment that receives the attention, while it's the products that are important in a distribution center. A conveyor system, no matter how basic or complex, is almost an "invisible" link in the total process.
Everyone knows the value of changing home heating and conditioning system filters regularly to avoid accumulated dirt and dust reducing airflow and damaging the system. Yet, too many of us fail to take a few seconds to make a quick inspection.
It's the same with conveyor systems. For example, if you have a belt conveyor, check the floor area underneath the conveyor while it's operating for dust-like shavings. When you see them, it's a sign that the belt is out of alignment, isn't tracking properly and is wearing unnecessarily and will eventually be damaged. You can always be aware of squeaks. They aren't normal; they're signals that something needs attention.
Regular inspections also serve to help familiarize employees stationed at conveyors to better understand the equipment they are using and to take ownership of its care.
2. Missing maintenance records. While some drive a vehicle until it falls apart, most of us take regular maintenance seriously and the key is keeping a record. Jiffy Lube, for example, places a little sticker on the upper left hand corner of the windshield with the mileage due date for the oil change.
The concept makes sense for conveyor systems, too. A maintenance log kept on or near the system with information on what maintenance has been performed and the date, along with anything that should be watched. This can be particularly useful in facilities where there are several shifts. It's also helpful if there is a change in personnel. Most importantly, it helps document the history of the equipment. If there is ever an issue with a manufacturer, for example, a maintenance record can support your case.
3. Failing to take the temperature of motors and reducers. While motors may not have a fever, they can overheat. A temperature spike indicates that something is causing an overload. In some cases, a conveyor is being used for materials for which it was not designed or an inappropriate conveyor has been pressed into service.
Having to replace a burned out motor during a production period means down time, particularly since most facilities don't have a backup supply.
4. Not adhering to OSHA standards. Many companies view a safe workplace as an expression of their values and a commitment to their employees and customers. It can also be a competitive advantage.
Yet, maintaining a high level of safety when it comes to equipment is not always easy. Because of the constant pressure in a production environment, it's easy to neglect equipment safety.
When reviewing facilities, it is easy to spot missing chain guards on conveyors, for example. The required pans underneath belt conveyors have either come off or been removed for one reason or another. More often than not, everyone is busy and safety equipment is not reinstalled after being removed.
Injuries are costly in time lost, the need to replace an employee and Worker's Compensation cost. In many cases, investigation reveals that the cause of injuries is the direct result of missing safety equipment.
5. Lack of adequate maintenance coverage. To reduce overhead expenses fewer maintenance personnel are on the job. Then, when a maintenance person goes on vacation, there may be no coverage. All of this increases the odds for conveyor breakdowns.
A cost-effective solution is having an experienced and certified conveyor service person make periodic inspections and be available when in-house coverage isn't available.
6. Inadequate parts inventory. As many learn, often too late, certain parts may not be readily available when there's a breakdown. While it's not appropriate to inventory every part, there are certain key components such as motors, couplings for line shafts, bearings and photo eyes that should be kept on hand.
You can survey your conveyor system and draw up a list of key components including part numbers.
7. Not learning from repeated breakdowns. An ongoing pattern of breakdowns is a message that something is wrong. But, again, production demands often require quick fixes to get the line moving.
Yet, having to replace a coupling on a line shaft conveyor, for example, should be an alert that there is a problem that needs to be investigated and resolved. Failing to do this only results in more down time incidents, additional costs and employee frustration.
8. "If it isn't broken, just let it go and don't worry about it." We've all heard those words.
We spot a frayed belt or find the lacing coming apart, but don't do anything about it, even though we know these are red flags indicating that costly lost time repairs will be needed--most likely at a critical moment.
It's common for a forklift to hit conveyor legs. Someone pushes them back in place, but the damage is done. The conveyor is out of alignment and begins to wear. It's another expensive repair bill in the making.
A photoelectric eye goes out and we grab one from another location to keep the line moving. And then there are air line leaks. And everyone wonders why the conveyor system is not accumulating properly. Nothing is done about it and everyone adjusts to a now inefficient and dysfunctional operation.
Waiting to make repairs until a conveyor system breaks down is a costly mistake.
9. Failing to care for the controls. As systems have become more technologically sophisticated, ignoring their maintenance can be disastrous. Here are two examples. First, switching scanners without recognizing that each one is programmed for a particular divert can create chaos, as we all know. Yet, it happens all the time.
Also, lightning strikes can knock out a control's programming, the result of not having a proper surge protection. Again, more down time and costly emergency repairs are needed to get up and running.
10. Using a conveyor in ways it wasn't intended. A need arises and a conveyor system is pressed into service without consideration of its capabilities. One of the most common examples is placing larger, heavier cartons on a narrow conveyor. When this happens, there is stress and wear on the entire conveyor, which will eventually result in a breakdown.
Then, there are those times when changes are made to an air line that affect the slug release and the entire system fails to function properly.
11. Avoiding those difficult places. Wherever there's equipment, there are difficult places to get to, sometimes up high, around in back and most of the time too little room to maneuver. These are the breeding ground for expensive repairs and operational issues. It's these places that are rarely (sometimes, if ever) lubricated. This is where you find loose chains and sprocket set screws, causing extra strain on the system and creating an emergency waiting to happen.
12. Failing to train employees in the operation of conveyors. One of the major causes of unnecessary maintenance costs is failing to train employees using the conveyors in their operation. They can become the eyes and ears for alerting their supervisors to potential problems. By knowing how conveyors operate, how to avoid their misuse and how to spot maintenance issues, employees become the first line of defense for minimizing problems and reducing costs.
While some may see it as "only a conveyor," others recognize it as a critical link in meeting deadlines, getting orders filled properly and accurately, and reducing overhead costs. Avoiding unnecessary mistakes with conveyors is simply good business.
Thomas Betts is currently the Technical Specialist for Lakeland, FL-based TriFactor, a leading integrator of material handling systems. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org For more information, visit http://www.trifactor.com/