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’ve got orders piling up all over the place. The boss is on our backs.”

It’s always the seemingly small things — such as a conveyor breakdown — that raise havoc, escalate costs and reduce profits. To describe it this way may seem overly dramatic, until you’ve taken dozens of calls from desperate managers with a down production line.

Here are 12 of the most common material-handling system maintenance mistakes and how to avoid them:

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, 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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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 downtime incidents, additional costs and employee frustration.

“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 photo-electric 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.

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.

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.

Avoiding those difficult places
Wherever there’s equipment, there are difficult places to get to, sometimes up high or around in back, and most of the time there’s 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.

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 E. Betts is installation and service manager at TriFactor, a material-handling systems integrator based in Lakeland, Fla. Betts has had more than 20 years experience in working with conveyor systems. He can be contacted at 863-577-2230 or betts@trifactor.com.

Technology Spotlight

Without a doubt, meat and poultry processing can be very tough on the means of transport in a processing facility. As Thomas Betts notes in his commentary on the preceding pages, processors must be diligent and proactive when thinking about conveyor maintenance. What follows is a sampling of what suppliers of conveying systems have to offer processors with regard to maintenance, from the mouth of the suppliers themselves. Companies are listed in alphabetical order.

Ashworth Bros. Inc.
Ashworth has addressed belt strength and sanitation concerns of processors to improve their conveyor maintenance routines. The Omni-Pro and Advantage belts use different features to improve strength and minimize the wear and tear on these conveyors, and all Ashworth belts are rated at 100,000 cycles, as opposed to 50,000 cycles, where most belts rate. Ashworth offers a wide variety of service features, including 24/7 support, proactive maintenance and service and on-site belt-tension checks by district account managers.

Cambridge International
Cambridge has designed more robust belts and sprockets for the rigors of sanitation and wear and tear in meat and poultry processing. The Duraflex belt, for example, was designed to be easy to splice, and , when a splice is needed, it is a permanent splice that is just as strong as the rest of the belt, giving the belt a new, longer life. Cambridge also offers 24/7 service and same-day shipping on spare parts, and can supply a host of performance evaluation services as well.

Intralox LLC
Intralox assists customers in designing solutions that fit their specific needs. Customer service is available 24/7, and in 14 languages during standard business hours. Customized packages of services and guarantees, ranging from expedited delivery to performance guarantees, are available, and Intralox offers a money-back guarantee on belt performance in all applications approved by an Intralox salesperson, sales engineer or customer service representative.

PPM Technologies
PPM’s VF Advance and Mini VF Advance, by design, have the least amount of maintenance of any conveyor, as they feature only two moving parts: an electric coil and rubber spring. A preventative maintenance program is printed in every conveyor’s owners manual, and 24/7 parts and service is available as well. Furthermore, maintenance contracts, audits and courtesy visits are offered to PPM customers, along with training on site or in PPM’s demo center.

Packaging Progressions
Packaging Progressions works to design conveying solutions with maintenance in mind — allowing for easy access to components and assemblies, simplifying tracking and tensioning methods, etc. Preventative maintenance and service contracts are available, but Packaging Progressions also offers assistance through periodic communication with customers and through 24/7 nationwide phone and in-person support. The company is beginning to implement electronic and Web-based bulletins and guides.

Larger belt pins made of a special wear-resistant material are one of uni-chains features to help processors in maintaining good conveyors and increasing belt life 20-30 percent over other modular belts. uni-chains also has developed a Lockpin mechanism that allows for easy access for cleaning and maintenance work on its conveyors. The company offers complete plant surveys and belt recommendations for any portion of the process, done by local uni-chains sales representatives.

Unitherm Food Systems
Unitherm offers a full, animated modeling system that allows the company to develop the conveyor system in detail, mock it up with real equipment and test the theory before any proposals are made. This prevents any surprises when the belts are set up in the plant. Unitherm also offers the Platinum Service Contract, giving the customer an interactive, fully dynamic relationship with Unitherm and making maintenance costs wholly predictable.

Wire Belt
Wire Belt's EZSplice splicing strands are custom, pre-formed wire strands that will splice the company’s Flat-Flex belt without any twisting or bending of wire. Furthermore, the C-CureEdge, patented end loops prevent poor belt handling, catching or tangling of the belts, causing down time and damage. The company also offers assistance at all stages of the process, including the design phase, many on-site maintenance training programs and technical review services.

— Andy Hanacek